NASCAR is the only sport that kicks off the season with its most prestigious event.
The Daytona 500 is a 500-mile-long, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stock car race held annually at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. It is one of four restrictor plate [device installed in an engine to limit top speed and provide equal level of competition] races on the Sprint Cup schedule. The inaugural Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and has been the season-opening Cup Series race since 1982. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing [NASCAR] Sprint Cup Series is named for its current sponsor, the Sprint Corporation, and has formerly been known as the Grand National [1950-70], Winston [1971-2003] and Nextel [2004-07] Cup Series. The series is comprised of 36 races, with drivers earning points for finishing placement and laps led throughout the season. The season is divided into two segments. After the first 26 races, the top 16 drivers are seeded based on their total number of wins and compete in the “Chase for the Championship” in the last ten races of the campaign. Daytona International Speedway hosts two Cup Series races each year—the Daytona 500 in February and the Coke Zero 400 on or around Independence Day.
The qualifying procedure is unique for the Daytona 500. The first row is set by a timed round of qualifying, held one week before the race. The remainder of the field is set by two separate 150-mile races, called the Can Am Duel, also held the weekend before the 500. The 2.5-mile oval track is made of asphalt, and 43 cars set out to complete 200 laps in the quest for the green-and-white checkered flag waved at the finish. The race is considered official after 100 laps. Four races have been shortened because of rain and the 1974 event was reduced to 450 miles in response to the energy crisis. The highest average speed for a Daytona 500 winner was 177 miles per hour, by Buddy Baker in 1980, while Junior Johnson averaged the slowest speed [125 mph] in 1960. Chevrolet cars have won 23 times, the most of any manufacturer, while Ford is next with 14 wins. Amongst owners, Petty Enterprises has won NASCAR’s biggest race nine times. Hendrick Motorsports is next with eight wins. Seven drivers claimed their first Cup Series victory at the Daytona 500 and five have won Daytona and the Cup Series Championship in the same year, including Richard Petty, who did it four times.
On February 22, 1959, Lee Petty, one of NASCAR’s original founders, beat Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish in the first Daytona 500. Five years later, Lee’s son Richard claimed the first of his seven victories in Daytona Beach. Mario Andretti’s first and only Cup Series win came at Daytona in 1967. The greatest finish in the race’s history came in 1976, when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed coming off the final turn, spun into the infield, and stalled. Pearson got his car restarted and across the finish line while Petty sat helpless, unable to get his car to start. The 1979 race changed the trajectory of NASCAR from a regional oddity to a national obsession when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison got into a fight on the track after crashing during the final lap. In 1988, Bobby Allison won the race while Donnie Allison finished second, marking the only 1-2 finish by a father and son in Daytona history. Tragedy struck at Daytona International Speedway in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in a crash during the last lap of the race. His son, Dale Jr. took the green-and-white checkered flag twice—in 2004 and 2014.
The “Great American Race” or the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” is the most important and prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar. It is where legends are made. Winning the Harley J. Earl Trophy is every driver’s dream, and past winners include Richard Petty [Daily Dose, November 18], Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon [Daily Dose, August 4]. Richard Petty has won the race seven times, more than any driver in history, and eleven men have won multiple times. There have been three father-son winners in the event’s 58-year history, including Lee and Richard Petty, the Earnhardts—Dale Senior and Junior—and Bobby and Davey Allison. The only brothers to win the biggest event in stock car racing are Michael and Darrell Waltrip [Daily Dose, February 18]. In addition to the Harley J. Earl Trophy, the winner receives $ 1.5 million in prize money and the winning car is displayed for one year at Daytona 500 Experience, a museum and gallery adjacent to the track. The Daytona 500 draws 140,000 spectators and 20 million TV viewers, the largest audience in NASCAR. The 2016 event was won by Denny Hamlin in the closest finish in the history of the “Great American Race.”
On this date in 1936, Milt Marion won the first stock car race held at Daytona Beach and Road Course, a 3.2 mile course that included a two mile section run on the sands of Daytona Beach.