Daytona International Speedway: A History Of Triumph And Tragedy

NASCAR may have been going to Darlington Raceway longer, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway may hold more history. But one track and one race reigns over both, and it is the site of unquestionably NASCAR's biggest and most prestigious event.

Since it opened its doors in 1959, Daytona International Speedway has been the Mecca of stock car drivers and fans alike. It has been the sight of triumph and tragedy -- sometimes both at the same time -- and has had more than its fair share of memorable moments.

The first 500-mile race on the two-and-a-half-mile track featured a side-by-side photo finish which resulted in NASCAR initially awarding the victory to Johnny Beauchamp before reversing its decision and awarding the win to Lee Petty three days later.

From that moment forth, the legacy of NASCAR's premiere event would only grow.

The second chapter added to the Book of Enchantment that is the Daytona 500 was added four years later when Tiny Lund went to Victory Lane.

What made Lund's victory so special wasn't because it was the first Daytona 500 win for Glen and Leonard Wood, but that Lund was a last-minute replacement for original driver Marvin Panch, who was injured in a testing accident weeks prior. It was Lund who rescued Panch and pulled him out of the fiery wreckage.

As a thank you, Panch asked the Wood Brothers to give his ride to Lund. Lund capitalized on the opportunity and drove the famous No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to victory.

Richard Petty won his first of seven Daytona 500s when he dominated the 1964 affair, leading 184 of 200 laps and easily earning his first superspeedway victory of any kind.

The 1967 version of "The Great American Race" was won by Mario Andretti two years before the future Formula One World Champion claimed glory in the other 500-mile race of note – the Indianapolis 500.

In 1972, another famous IndyCar driver picked up the checkered flag when A.J. Foyt became the third different driver to take the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane.

Throughout the '60s and '70s, Richard Petty and David Pearson dominated NASCAR's Grand National Series, which we now know as the Sprint Cup. In a 12-year span, they combined to win nine series championships, and in 1976, the two legendary combatants staged one of sport's great finishes in Daytona.

Leading on the last lap, Petty was passed by Pearson heading down the backstretch and into Turn 3. As was common then and still is today when racing at Daytona, Petty attempted to use the draft to power under Pearson coming off of the final corner and toward the checkered flag.

However, Petty never cleared Pearson's car, and the two champions made contact with one another with each spinning through the grass – just short of the finish line.

Petty's Dodge was finished and he was unable to get his car restarted. Pearson had the presence of mind to keep his foot on the clutch while spinning and, when he came to a stop, he put his car into gear and limped across the finish line. It was his first and last Daytona 500 victory, but it came in a manner no one will ever forget.

To everyone's astonishment, that dramatic finish would be topped just three years later in a race that would forever put NASCAR on the minds of the American public.

In 1979, CBS decided to broadcast the 500 in its entirety. For the first time, NASCAR's top race would be shown flag-to-flag throughout the country. As luck would have it, a blizzard hit the northeast and kept people in their homes watching television.

What viewers saw was a finish where the first- and second-place cars driven by Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough intentionally wrecked one another on the white-flag lap, and Richard Petty come out of nowhere to claim his sixth Daytona 500 victory. Then, in what might be the most famous moment in NASCAR history, Allison and his brother, Bobby, engaged Yarborough physically.

Live on national television.

People who never considered themselves race fans before instantaneously took sides and became ardent supporters of the blossoming sport. It was a moment that forever launched NASCAR to once-unforeseen heights and it will always associated with NASCAR's premiere event.

Bobby Allison won the 500 for the second time in 1982. In a poignant moment that touched on the bond between father and son, he beat his son Davey to the finish line for a third win in 1988.

Yarborough took center stage again in the '80s when he became just the second driver (Richard Petty was the first) to take consecutive trips to the Daytona winner's circle in 1983 and 1984.

Throughout the '80s, Dale Earnhardt came close many times to winning the one race that had always eluded him. With each passing year, however, Earnhardt would find some way not to win.

In 1990, the "Earnhardt Hex" really took on a life of its own.

Dominating all afternoon, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that "The Intimidator" would finally taste victory at Daytona. Coming off Turn 2 on the final lap, though, the famous black No. 3 car slowed due to a punctured tire. Derrike Cope, a little regarded driver from Spanaway, Wash., swept under Earnhardt and scored the win.

Close runner-up finishes in 1993 and 1995 added further proof that the Daytona 500 was simply not Earnhardt's race to win. However, that all changed on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in 1998.

Out front, as he frequently was at Daytona, Earnhardt led with two laps to go when the caution came out for an accident on the backstretch. Deftly beating Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield back to the start/finish line, Earnhardt finally secured the one thing which had always slipped out of his grasp and won the Daytona 500.

A celebration worthy of such an achievement then commenced. Every crew member from every team greeted the seven-time champion as he came down pit road.

Just three years later, Earnhardt was involved in another incident no one will ever forget when he tragically lost his life after a head-on crash into the Turn 4 wall.

As Earnhardt's damaged machine came to a rest at the bottom of the track, Michael Waltrip flew underneath the checkered flag to bring home the victory. Waltrip won the race driving a car actually owned by Earnhardt himself.

As low as NASCAR fans felt at that moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed victory in the 2004 edition of the 500 -- six years to the day his father was killed -- and helped do away with some of the sadness that still lingered.

Over the next seven years, the Daytona 500 was won by champions with impressive resumés (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth) as well as unlikely winners (Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray).

The unlikeliest of winners was precocious, 21-year-old Trevor Bayne, who was making just his second career Sprint Cup start when he won in 2011.

There he was, driving for that same venerable Wood Brothers team that had won in 1963, 1968 and 1972 and celebrating like all those who had celebrated before him.

And why shouldn't he?

After all, this is Daytona: the birthplace of NASCAR and where a win means more than anywhere else.

Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.


You must be a member of to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at You should read them.


You must be a member of to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at You should read them.




Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.