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­The Daytona 500 is run each February at Daytona International Speedway before approximately 200,000 fans and a huge national TV audience. A nearly $2 million payday awaits the winner. But these spoils -- the gold and the glamour -- are merely part of the race's mystique.

There's also the heritage of the most prestigious race in NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing). The inaugural Daytona 500 was run in 1959, and since then, NASCAR has grown fro­m its provincial Southeastern roots into a national phenomenon. (NASCAR television ratings are now second in sports, behind only those of the NFL.) Through it all, the Daytona 500 has remained NASCAR's cornerstone race.

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The Daytona 500 draws about 200,000 racing fans each year.
©Wieck Media
About 200,000 people flock to the Daytona 500
each year -- and millions more watch on television.
See more NASCAR pictures.

"Daytona is still the biggest event in our sport," says Darrell Waltrip, who won the 1989 Daytona 500 and is now a commentator on Fox Sports' racing telecasts. "It's the hardest race to win. Anybody who wins Daytona becomes a member of a very exclusive club."

Daytona has made heroes and built careers. It has dashed dreams and broken hearts. It has been the scene of great triumphs and dark tragedies.

"I don't know if Daytona is so much a racetrack as it is a shrine," Waltrip says. "There's a reverence about the place."

On the following pages, we'll take an in-depth look at the Daytona 500. We'll examine a wide range of topics, including why the event takes place in Florida, how the track differs from others in NASCAR, and how the cars are set up for this unique race. By the time you cross the finish line, you'll know exactly how the Daytona 500 works.

For more information on NASCAR and on cars in general, check out:

  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • Toyota introduced its Camry to NASCAR in 2007. To learn about the history of this popular car, read How the Toyota Camry Works.
  • Ever wonder what makes a stock car go? Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out.
  • Driver safety is a huge concern in NASCAR. Learn what measures the series takes in this area by reading How NASCAR Safety Works.
  • Muscle cars embody the NASCAR philosophy of speed and power. Here are features on more than 100 classic muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.