Gearheads call it "The Great American Race" and "The Super Bowl of NASCAR." Unlike most of its less-noble brethren, it has resisted shilling its name to a corporate sugar daddy. It will never be christened "The ACME Weed-Whacker 500" or "The Yoo-hoo 500."
No, it's the Daytona 500 -- proud, unique, and special. Always has been. Always will be.
This is the biggest, baddest stock car race on the planet. Daytona International Speedway ? located in sunny Daytona Beach, Florida -- is a 2.5-mile asphalt Augusta. It's Lambeau Field at 200 mph, Wrigley Field sideways on two wheels. Daytona is home to 500 miles of legend, lore, white knuckles, and goose bumps.
We've sifted through five decades of thrills and spills and pinpointed the top 10 Daytona 500s of all time. Our list features daredevils with names like "Fireball," "The King," and "The Intimidator." And first-name-only heroes like Mario and A.J.
Strap in, because it's going to be a wild ride.
Winner: Glen "Fireball" Roberts
Margin of victory: 27 seconds
Why it's No. 10: "Fireball" Roberts -- who acquired his nickname not for his skill as a racer but rather for the flaming fastballs he threw as a high school baseball player -- was among the original superstars of NASCAR.
Known for his flare on the track, Roberts was a frequent winner in the 1950s and early 1960s – except, ironically, when he raced in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1955, he finished first on the Daytona beach course but was disqualified because of a mechanical technicality. In 1961, he was running away with the Daytona 500, but his day ended abruptly when his car's engine blew.
In the 1962 Daytona 500, however, he wouldn't be denied. After dining on his favorite pre-race meal, a bologna sandwich, Fireball strapped himself into his car and rolled onto the track for some payback.
The race came down to a spirited two-car battle between Fireball and a young upstart named Richard Petty. Ultimately, Roberts pulled away and won by 27 seconds. Petty would go on to win a record 200 NASCAR races; Roberts, meanwhile, died tragically in 1964 after a gruesome crash in the World 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
On February 18, 1962, however, time stood still. It was the day Roberts beat a legend-in-the-making and finally left a lasting mark on his hometown.
Winner: Mario Andretti
Margin of victory: under caution
Why it's No. 9: Andretti's victory in the 1967 Daytona 500 brought serious attention to a sport that badly needed it. At the time, NASCAR was merely a provincial happening, its good ol' boy fan base located in the Southeast. The national spotlight shined on Indy cars -- sleek, open-wheel bullets that were the epitome of cool. And no Indy car driver was more cool or famous than the 27-year-old-Andretti, who had won the series championship in 1965 and 1966.
In the winter of 1967, Andretti decided to head to Daytona, the land of bulky, rumbling stock cars. Would Andretti measure up -- literally? He was so short that his Hush Puppies wouldn't reach the gas pedal. (No kidding -- he raced in Hush Puppies.)
Car owner Smokey Yunick compensated for Andretti's, er, shortcomings by building a longer gas pedal. And once the 1967 Daytona 500 started, Andretti stood tall, just as he had racing Indy cars. He mashed the pedal to the floorboard and kept it there for 500 miles. Andretti dominated the field, leading 112 of the 200 laps.
But the biggest winner that day was NASCAR. In Victory Lane, a giddy Andretti proclaimed: "You don't baby a car at Daytona like you do [in Indy cars] at Indy [Indianapolis Motor Speedway]. It's flat out."
Winner: A.J. Foyt
Margin of victory: 1 lap-plus
Why it's No. 8: Foyt's victory in the 1972 Daytona 500 was significant for much the same reason as Andretti's in 1967: A big-name driver from the other side of the tracks (Indy cars) brought attention and prestige to stock car racing.
Foyt, a bigger-than-life Texan, made a Joe Namath-like guarantee prior to the 1972 Daytona 500: "I'll win it." Early on, though, it looked as if Foyt would have trouble living up to his words. He got jammed in traffic and was forced to elbow his way through the crowd of roughhewn NASCAR regulars.
It wasn't until the closing laps, after a contending Richard Petty was sent to the garage because of car failure, that Foyt found himself free and clear of the pack.
Foyt then sailed to the checkered flag, beating Charlie Glotzbach by almost two laps, the biggest margin of victory in Daytona 500 history.
Foyt's gutsy -- and ultimately dominant -- performance earned high praise from the NASCAR fraternity. "He fit right in," drawled Petty.
Winner: Sterling Marlin
Margin of victory: 0.19 seconds
Why it's No. 7: Marlin had paid his dues. And paid. And paid. For 17 years, he had raced in NASCAR obscurity, nursing second-rate cars to second-tier finishes.
Then Marlin landed a topflight ride with Morgan-McClure Motorsports near the end of the 1993 season. The self-proclaimed country boy from Columbia, Tennessee, finally had his big chance. And he made the most of it in the 1994 Daytona 500. Marlin steadily worked his way through the field, shook off a late challenge from Ernie Irvan, and nipped Irvan at the finish by a scant .19 of a second. It was his first NASCAR win in 279 tries. And he did it in the most prestigious event on the calendar.
Afterward, as he celebrated in the bright Florida sunshine, Sterling dedicated the victory to his father, Coo Coo Marlin, a colorful character who raced 12 years in NASCAR without ever earning a victory. "This one's for Daddy," Sterling said. "He ran all those years and never won one. This one's for him."
Back in Columbia, a welcome-home parade wound through the rural farmland and onto Main Street, creating such a commotion that Sterling's wife Paula said, "It scared the cows."
Maybe the cows, like everybody else, simply were cheering.
Winner: Jeff Gordon
Margin of victory: under caution
Why it's No. 6: Today, Gordon is the most famous driver in NASCAR. And his victory in the 1997 Daytona 500 -- at 25, he became the youngest person ever to win the race -- helped catapult him to that status.
The race ended under caution, but the action leading up to that point was electric -- Gordon and Bill Elliott waged a fierce battle for the lead. "It's an experience I'll never forget," Gordon said of the duel. "I got chill bumps."
Adding drama to the afternoon were the travails of Dale Earnhardt, Gordon's main NASCAR rival. Earnhardt crashed hard during the race, but when his car was hooked to a tow truck, he intervened and demanded that it be unhooked. Earnhardt then crawled inside, managed to get the mangled car started, and completed the race. That, at least, was a moral victory for the man known as "The Intimidator."
Winner: Darrell Waltrip
Margin of victory: 7.64 seconds
Why it's No. 5: Waltrip was nicknamed "Jaws" because he ran his mouth as hard as he ran the motor of his race car. But the brash Tennessean liked to say: "Boys, it ain't braggin' if you do it."
In the 1989 Daytona 500, Darrell did it. Nursing a gasping gas tank, Waltrip managed to dart across the finish line 7.64 seconds ahead of Ken Schrader, claiming his first Daytona 500 win in his 17th try in, fittingly, car No. 17.
An incredulous Dale Earnhardt, who finished third, questioned Waltrip's amazing mileage. "I'd like to get a look at that gas tank," Earnhardt growled.
Another doubting driver said: "For $5, I'd drink what was left."
Waltrip didn't hear the harpies; he was too busy spiking his helmet and doing the "Icky Shuffle" in Victory Circle. "This is the race everybody will always remember," said Waltrip. "This is Daytona."
Waltrip has retired from racing, but he hasn't retired from talking. Today, he is an award-winning broadcaster on Fox Sports' racing telecasts.
Winner: Dale Earnhardt
Margin of victory: under caution
Why it's No. 4: Earnhardt, the baddest dude in racing, was nicknamed "The Intimidator." Daytona International Speedway, however, wasn't scared -- Earnhardt had been unable to intimidate the fearsome track when things mattered most.
Heading into 1998, Earnhardt was 0-for-19 in the Daytona 500. He had been robbed of victories at the last second by blown tires, wrecks, dry gas tanks -- you name it.
As Earnhardt prepared for the 1998 Daytona 500, he said, "I don't know if I'm crazy or determined, but I'm more eager than ever."
It showed. With one lap to go in the race, Earnhardt was leading when a John Andretti crash brought out a caution flag. The field was frozen -- the race was over. Earnhardt, who had led the previous 61 laps, was about to win the Daytona 500.
As Earnhardt cruised down pit road on his way to Victory Circle, members of rival pit crews rushed out to slap his hand and offer him congratulations. Fans in the grandstands went wild. "Finally," Earnhardt said after climbing out of his car.
That said it all. At long last, the toughest driver of them all had overcome his tough luck in the Daytona 500.
Winner: Lee Petty
Margin of victory: 2 feet
Why it's No. 3: This was the first Daytona 500, and it was a dilly. Petty -- the patriarch of NASCAR's First Family -- sped toward the finish line in a side-by-side battle with Johnny Beauchamp, a hiccup finish made even more complicated by the fact that Joe Weatherly, two laps down, was wedged in beside the two leaders. The three cars crossed the finish line in a dead-heat blur.
Who won? Nobody knew. It was too close to call.
It took three days of studying still photos of the finish before NASCAR president Bill France Sr. finally proclaimed Petty the victor. Did he make the correct call? The debate continues to this day.
The controversial finish was good news for the fledgling sport. For three days, it kept NASCAR and the Daytona 500 on the front page of sports sections around the country. Stock car racing had never received so much publicity -- the Daytona 500 was on its way.
Winner: Richard Petty
Margin of victory: 1 car length
Why it's No. 2: Petty won the 1979 Daytona 500, but nobody was watching. When he crossed the finish line, everyone's eyes were glued to the Daytona International Speedway infield, where Cale Yarborough was slugging it out with the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby.
Cale and Donnie had been waging a stubborn side-by-side battle heading into the final lap. Neither would budge an inch, and when they couldn't wedge two cars into a hole made for only one car, they collided and crashed. Their wrecked cars went spinning off the track and jolted to a stop in the muddy infield.
Bobby, driving in the back of the pack, pulled over to check on his brother. Then he made the mistake of "checking" on Yarborough. A stocky, hickory-tough former semipro football player, Yarborough had a quick temper. Suddenly, helmets were swinging and fists were flying.
This was the first NASCAR race ever to be televised live flag-to-flag, and the viewers got an eyeful. They were captivated as they watched those wild-and-crazy stock car drivers beat each other to pieces both on and off the racetrack.
NASCAR would grow into the second-highest-rated pro sport on TV, behind only the NFL -- and it all started with a fistfight on a muddy Daytona infield.
"I'd have liked to have stopped and watched," chuckled Petty, who sailed past the wreck on his way to victory. "It looked pretty excitin'."
Winner: David Pearson
Margin of victory: 150 feet
Why it's No. 1: Pearson was known as the "Silver Fox" because of his slyness on the track. Most fans considered only one driver to be his equal: Richard "The King" Petty.
Pearson and Petty had waged many battles over the years, and the 1976 Daytona 500 was perhaps the most memorable installment in their rivalry. They were side-by-side as they screamed toward the finish line on the final lap. It was a test of guts, grit, and gumption. Neither driver gave an inch.
Their cars touched, swerved, and then crashed hard into the wall 20 yards shy of the finish line. Petty's crushed car spun into the infield and stalled. Pearson -- shouting into his radio, "Where's Richard!?" -- managed to get his equally mangled racer refired. He wobbled across the line at 30 mph, smoke billowing from his car and torn metal clanking.
"For a minute, I thought I was going to become the first driver to win the Dayton 500 backwards," said Pearson.
Win the Daytona 500 he did. It was the greatest finish ever in NASCAR's greatest race.
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