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.