Daytona 500 Overview

Quiz Corner
How much do you know about NASCAR? Test your knowledge with our NASCAR Quizzes­!

­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.

NASCAR Image Gallery

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.

 

What Makes the Daytona 500 Special?

The Daytona 500 is different from the other 35 events on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule -- and not just because of its Florida locale, which showcases the Atlantic Ocean, palm trees, and bikinis in addition to racing.

The Daytona 500, which takes place in late February, is the culmination of a two-week motor-orgy known as Speed Weeks. Speed freaks love Speed Weeks.

Even before Speed Weeks, the place is hopping. NASCAR teams spend January testing their cars at the track. Then the festival of speed kicks into high gear with the 24 Hours of Daytona (an endurance race featuring sports cars, not NASCAR stock cars); the International Race of Champions (an all-star event with drivers from several different racing disciplines); the Bud Shootout (a 70-lap NASCAR exhibition made up of pole winners, or drivers who qualified in the top spot for races, from the previous season); a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race (featuring modified pickup trucks); a NASCAR Busch Series race (run by "minor league" drivers); a pair of qualifying races for the Daytona 500; and -- finally -- the main event.

Sound hectic? It is.

The Daytona 500 is the first race on the NASCAR calendar.
©Wieck Media
The Daytona 500, otherwise known as "The Super Bowl of NASCAR," is
the first race on the NASCAR schedule. Weeks of events lead up to the race.


The Daytona 500 is the only NASCAR race in which the starting lineup is not determined by qualifying (drivers earning their starting positions based on speeds posted while driving alone on the track for either one or two laps). For the Daytona 500, the first two starting spots in the 43-car field -- the pole and the outside front-row spot -- are determined by qualifying speeds. The remainder of the field is then set by how drivers finish in a pair of 125-mile races.

Sound confusing? It is.

Before Speed Weeks revs up, teams have already spent a month testing and tuning their cars, an indication of how much emphasis is placed on the Daytona 500. It's NASCAR's Super Bowl. But whereas the Super Bowl ends the season in the NFL, the Daytona 500 starts it in NASCAR. Why? Because NASCAR thinks it produces maximum drama.

Sound backwards? It is.

But the strategy has worked. "I think it's a great idea," says Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "We start our season with a bang. There's a big buildup, a lot of excitement, then we run our biggest race of the season. That kind of sets the stage for the rest of the year. To me, winning Daytona is just like winning the Super Bowl; we just do it at a different time."

The difference is, the champion of the Daytona 500 won't necessarily be crowned the champion of the season. NASCAR has a
points system
, highlighted by a 10-race shootout at the end of the season called the Chase for the Nextel Cup, that determines the season champ. Drivers get points based on how they finish in each race of the season.

Sound mathematical? It is.

The Daytona 500, on the other hand, is easy to understand: The driver who crosses the finish line first is the winner. And in the process, that driver gains a measure of immortality.

The mystique of the Daytona 500 has been decades in the making. In the next section, we'll examine the race's history, including why it takes place in sunny Florida.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • 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.

Daytona 500 History

The Daytona 500 was first run in 1959, but its roots can be traced all the way back to 1903. That was the year some hardy sorts decided that the level, hard-packed sands of Ormond Beach, Florida, would be a perfect place to see how fast a race car could run. From there, beach racing in the Daytona area became a hit.

Cars used to race on the beach in Daytona.
©Wieck Media
Before Daytona International Speedway was built, cars raced on the beach.


In 1934, a mechanic named "Big Bill" France migrated to Daytona from Washington D.C. The only thing France enjoyed more than working on cars was racing them. France, a true visionary, squinted across the shimmering sand and saw the future.

The sport of racing stock cars (which essentially were souped-up street cars) had a cult following; events were staged primarily at tiny tracks sprinkled throughout the rural Southeast. France would change that. In 1955, he announced plans to build the mammoth Daytona Beach Motor Speedway (it's now called Daytona International Speedway). Four years later, the first Daytona 500 was run.

France also founded NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) and began to bring order to what previously had been an untamed sport. Since France lived in Daytona and his big track also was located there, it made sense to have NASCAR headquartered in the Florida town, too.

Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR and built Daytona International Speedway.
©Ford Motorsports History via Wieck
Bill France Sr. [left] was the visionary who founded NASCAR
and masterminded the construction of Daytona International Speedway.


Daytona has proved to be an ideal site for the nerve center of NASCAR. The Daytona 500 opens the NASCAR season each February, a time of year when many other tracks around the country are paved in ice and snow. Daytona offers race fans a chance to escape the winter and soak up some sun, surf, and speed. Approximately 200,000 fans make the Daytona 500 an annual sellout.

Daytona International Speedway hosts a second NASCAR race each year during the Fourth of July weekend. But even though it's on the same track and has the same cars and drivers, it's not the same race. There are other horse races at Churchill Downs, but there's only one Kentucky Derby. The same logic applies to Daytona.

"For a race driver, when you drive through that tunnel and into the infield at Daytona, it's like you've entered the gates of heaven," says 1989 Daytona 500 winner Darrell Waltrip. "If you roll onto the track at Daytona and don't get goose bumps, buddy, you ain't a racer."

Indeed, Daytona International Speedway is unique. In the next section, we'll examine some of the features that give the track its distinct personality.

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.
  • 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.
  • Toyota introduced its Camry to NASCAR in 2007. To learn about the history of this popular car, read How the Toyota Camry 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.

How Daytona International Speedway Works

Daytona International Speedway is a fearsome track. At 2.5 miles, Daytona isn't NASCAR's biggest track (that asphalt honor goes to 2.6-mile Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama). It's not even the fastest track (that hard-chargin' honor goes to Atlanta Motor Speedway). But with a backstretch that produces speeds of nearly 200 mph, Daytona is plenty fast enough.

The track is tri-oval in shape. The banking, or the slope of the track, ranges from 31 degrees in the turns to 18 degrees on the front stretch and three degrees on the nearly level backstretch. How steep is 31 degrees? It's like a ski slope. If the banking weren't this steep, the cars would fly off the track while trying to go through the corners at maximum speeds.

The steep banks at Daytona prevent the cars from flying off the track.
©Wieck Media
The steep banks at Daytona International Speedway
are what enable the cars to travel at such high speeds.


Drivers at Daytona and similar big tracks employ a strategy called "drafting." The front car punches a hole in the air, and the trailing cars ride in the wake -- the vacuum -- of the front car. (Imagine riding down the highway and sticking your hand out the window; it is met with a hard push of air. Drop your hand behind the side-view mirror, and the push subsides; the mirror breaks the wind. Basically, your hand is "drafting" behind the mirror.)

Two or more cars drafting together can pick up speed, while a car running by itself will fall behind. So how does the trailing car pass? The trick is to gather speed in the vacuum and use that momentum to burst out and around, or slingshot past, the lead car.

Download this PDF to see a diagram of
Daytona International Speedway
. Then go to the next page to learn how drivers prepare themselves and their cars for the rigors of racing at Daytona.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • 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.

Why Is It Different to Race at Daytona?

All football fields are 100 yards long, with goalposts at each end. But all football fields are not Lambeau Field.

In golf, you and your buddies are getting ready to tee it up at the local Beer Belly Muny Course. No pressure. Just wipe the hot dog mustard off your hands and hope for a good bounce off the cart path. But what if you're walking up to the first tee at Augusta, with the gallery spreading before you like a sea, the national TV cameras honed in, the commentators whispering, and some dude named Tiger waiting to hit behind you? Get the idea?

The cars at Daytona travel in tight packs.
©2007 Wieck Media
Because of restrictor plates,
the cars at Daytona travel
dangerously close together.

"There's definitely a lot of pressure at Daytona [International Speedway]," says retired racing legend Darrell Waltrip, who won 84 NASCAR races but only once in the Daytona 500. "It's the start of a new season, and there's a tremendous buildup. There's more meditation at this race than any other. You're constantly aware of the sense of history and the aura of the place. It weighs on your mind."

The competition is tougher at Daytona than anywhere else. It's the season-opener, so every team is fresh and eager and ambitious. They've all spent a winter in preparation and weeks in practice.

Then there are the technical aspects of the race. Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway are the only two tracks on the NASCAR circuit where restrictor plates are required. Restrictor plates fit over the carburetor, limiting the flow of air and thereby lowering horsepower and speed.

Why does NASCAR want "slower racing" at these two tracks? The speeds had escalated to the point where cars were going airborne. In the late 1980s, Bobby Allison's 3,400-pound Buick sailed off the track at Talladega and almost cleared a 10-foot-high wall that separated the track from packed grandstands. That's when NASCAR decided it had better rein in the speeds.

Restrictor plates aren't a perfect solution. Drivers complain that the restrictor plates slow throttle response and make the cars sluggish. Two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin says, "It's like running in wet cement."

More important, the cars tend to stay bunched up, running four-wide, nose-to-tail, at 200 mph. One bobble, one hiccup, can spark "The Big One" -- a giant pileup. Says Marlin, "After you run 500 miles at Daytona, the first thing you do is pry your fingers loose from the steering wheel. Then you exhale."

Drivers who are able to master the elements and cruise to victory in the Daytona 500 are assured lasting fame. In the next section, we provide a list of all the legends -- the men who won the Daytona 500.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • 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.

Daytona 500 Winners

The list of Daytona 500 winners reads like a who's who of NASCAR, featuring names like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and "Fireball" Roberts. Here's a complete rundown of the Daytona 500 winners:

Year Driver
Car
Average Speed (mph)
2007
Kevin Harvick
Chevrolet
149.333
2006 Jimmie Johnson
Chevrolet
142.734
2005
Jeff Gordon
Chevrolet
135.173
2004
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Chevrolet
156.341
2003
Michael Waltrip
Chevrolet
133.870
2002
Ward Burton
Dodge
130.810
2001
Michael Waltrip
Chevrolet
161.783
2000
Dale Jarrett
Ford
155.669
1999
Jeff Gordon
Chevrolet
161.551
1998
Dale Earnhardt
Chevrolet
172.7612
1997
Jeff Gordon
Chevrolet
148.295
1996
Dale Jarrett
Ford
154.308
1995
Sterling Marlin
Chevrolet
141.710
1994
Sterling Marlin
Chevrolet
156.931
1993
Dale Jarrett
Chevrolet
154.972
1992
Davey Allison
Ford
160.256
1991
Ernie Irvan
Chevrolet
148.148
1990
Derrike Cope
Chevrolet
165.761
1989
Darrell Waltrip
Chevrolet
148.466
1988
Bobby Allison
Buick
137.531
1987
Bill Elliott
Ford
176.263
1986
Geoff Bodine
Chevrolet
148.124
1985
Bill Elliott
Ford
172.265
1984
Cale Yarborough
Chevrolet
150.994
1983
Cale Yarborough
Pontiac
155.979
1982
Bobby Allison
Buick
153.991
1981
Richard Petty
Buick
169.651
1980
Buddy Baker
Oldsmobile
177.602
1979
Richard Petty
Oldsmobile
143.977
1978
Bobby Allison
Ford
159.730
1977
Cale Yarborough
Chevrolet
153.218
1976
David Pearson
Mercury
152.181
1975
Benny Parsons
Chevrolet
153.649
1974
Richard Petty
Dodge
140.894
1973
Richard Petty
Dodge
157.205
1972
A.J. Foyt
Mercury
161.550
1971
Richard Petty
Plymouth
144.462
1970
Pete Hamilton
Plymouth
149.601
1969
Lee Roy Yarborough
Ford
157.950
1968
Cale Yarborough
Mercury
143.251
1967
Mario Andretti
Ford
146.251
1966
Richard Petty
Plymouth
160.927
1965
Fred Lorenzen
Ford
141.539
1964
Richard Petty
Plymouth
154.334
1963
DeWayne "Tiny" Lund
Ford
151.566
1962
Glen "Fireball" Roberts
Pontiac
152.529
1961
Marvin Panch
Pontiac
149.601
1960
Robert "Junior" Johnson
Chevrolet
124.740
1959
Lee Petty
Oldsmobile
135.521

Forget winning the Daytona 500 – for those who simply watch it on TV, understanding what the announcers are saying can seem difficult enough. Fear not. On the next page, we provide a glossary of common NASCAR terms.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • 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.

NASCAR Terms

If you're watching the Daytona 500 on television, it might seem as if the commentators are speaking a foreign language as they describe the action on the track. NASCAR has its own distinct lexicon. Consider the glossary on this page NASCAR Lingo 101. It will arm you with enough knowledge to appreciate what's happening during the Daytona 500, or any other NASCAR race.

Aerodynamics: The flow of air over and around the car. "Speed" is nothing more than how fast a 3,400-pound stock car can push its way through the air.

Caution flag: The yellow flag that's waved to signal trouble on the track -- usually debris from a crash -- and the field to slow down.

Caution lap: Under caution, drivers can duck into the pits for gas and tires, taking advantage of the slow caution-flag pace on the track.

Crew chief: He's the coach of a race team, the guy who radios instructions to his driver and maps out strategy. Remember Robert Duvall, Tom Cruise's crew chief in the movie "Days of Thunder?" The crew chief gets dirty and grimy; the driver gets the glory and the girl.

Garage: The area in the track infield where mechanics work on the cars while the drivers talk to the media and chat up pretty girls.

The NASCAR garage is where the race cars are worked on.
©Autostock
The garage is where the cars are prepared for battle.


Hauler:
The big rig that hauls the race car to the track, along with the tools and other equipment.

Pit crew: The men who service the car during pit stops, changing tires, adding gas, and cleaning the windshield. The pit crew does all of this in about 15 seconds -- just like your mechanic back home.

Pit road: The lane that runs along the front stretch. It's where drivers pull in to make their pit stops.

PR people: They are assigned to keep the media away from their drivers. Seriously (kind of), they're the ones who provide the media with information and facilitate interviews with the drivers and other team members.

Push: When the front tires have difficulty turning.

Retaining wall: The concrete barrier that keeps spinning cars from going off the track. Such walls account for much of the "Ouch!" factor in racing.


Sponsor: The corporate sugar daddy that writes the checks that keeps the cars running. For about $15 million a year, a company gets to paste its name and logo on one of NASCAR's flying billboards.

Sponsorship is what drives the sport of NASCAR.
©Purduenila
Sponsors pay big bucks to get their names on NASCAR race cars.


Stock car:
A souped-up version of the very car you drive to work. That's the NASCAR myth, anyway; in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. Real stock cars went out with the moonshiners back in the 1950s.

Victory Circle (Lane): Where the race winner goes to celebrate, hoist his trophy, pose for photos, plug his sponsor, and kiss Miss Lug Nut.

Tech: The technical inspection every car has to pass before it goes onto the track. Everything must meet strict NASCAR requirements, such as weight, height, width, and so on. Tech inspectors are referees with a tool box.

Tight: Opposite of loose (duh!). It means that the car is hard to turn. Having to crank a balky car makes a driver, well, cranky.

Track bar: No, it's not a nearby joint where everybody heads after the race. It's part of the car's rear suspension that keeps the tires centered. If the track bar breaks, the driver can leave early and head to the other track bar.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • 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.

Lots More Information

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.

When Mark Martin Dines Out at Daytona...

Mark Martin is a NASCAR superstar.
©2007 Autostock
Martin's pick:
Carrabba's Italian Grill.

Mark Martin, a longtime NASCAR superstar and the runner-up in the 2007 Daytona 500, is nearly as famous for his workout regimen as he is for his driving skills. It goes without saying that he works up quite an appetitie during his days at the track and in the weight room. So where does Martin like to eat when he's at Daytona? Carrabba's Italian Grill.

"The'yre primarily an Italian restaurant, but I love their seafood," Martin says. "The grilled salmon and the grilled mahi-mahi is my favorite."

If you want to see what all the fuss is about and check out Carrabba's Italian Grill for yourself, it's located at 2200 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach (32114). Phone: 386/255-3344.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Larry Woody covers auto racing for The Tennessean in Nashville. He is a three-time Tennessee Sports Sportswriter of the Year and a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.