The green flag is quickly approaching on the 2014 NASCAR season, with the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race for 2013 pole sitters on tap for Saturday night and the running of the “official” start of the season — the Daytona 500 — scheduled for next weekend (Feb. 23). And while the Daytona 500 is just over a week away, qualifying for the event — for the front row, at least — is set to go down Sunday afternoon (live television coverage provided by FOX, beginning at 1 p.m. ET).
With the 2014 season, specifically the Daytona 500, quickly approaching, now would be the perfect time to look back on memorable Daytona 500s from years gone by. Below, are what I consider to be some of the most memorable moments of the “Great American Race.” Fortunately, I witnessed most of these moments for myself, while others occurred before I was born or was just too young to remember. Still, I think these are the most memorable. Here it goes (in chronological order):
1959 — This was the first Daytona 500 at the newly-constructed Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, and isn’t the first of anything usually, at least somewhat, special? But bing first wasn’t the only thing that made this race memorable. The original patriarch of, perhaps, NASCAR’s first family, Lee Petty, was the first Daytona 500 winner. But it took NASCAR a few days to figure that out. After a photo finish, Johnny Beauchamp was declared the winner. Petty was sure he won, so he protested the finish. Three days later, the call was reveresed and Petty was declared the race winner and recipient of a $19,050 winner’s purse.
1979 — The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first 500-mile NASCAR race to receive live flag-to-flag national TV broadcast coverage — another first. But being the first race of its kind to be shown live on TV isn’t what’s most memorable about this installment of the 500. Heck, a lot of people may not even remember who won the race. In case you’re in the dark on this one, Richard Petty was the victor. The most memorable thing about this race was the fireworks at the end, provided by Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. According to accounts by Bobby Allison, Yarborough kept “hitting my fist with his nose.”
1989 — After 17 tries, Darrell Waltrip finally won the Daytona 500. But the mental image most people get of his first and only win of NASCAR’s most popular race is that of the three-time series champion doing his version of the “Ickey Shuffle” before spiking his helmet in victory lane. Waltrip did, though, make it a point to make sure he did win the Daytona 500 by asking reporters, “This is the Daytona 500?”
1998 — Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was one driver that had even more trouble than Waltrip when it came to winning the Daytona 500. After several near misses that included flat tires and seagulls, Earnhardt finally broke through for the win in 1998. The win was so memorable and so emotional that crew members from every race team lined up on pit road to give Earnhardt a hero-type congratulations. I admit this one made me more than a little misty-eyed.
2001 — The 2001 Daytona 500 provided both good and bad memories. For one, it marked the first-career Sprint Cup win for Michael Waltrip after more than 400 tries to win at NASCAR’s top level. Not to mention, his teammate at his new racing home, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Dale Earnhardt Jr., was right behind him in second. Watching his two cars in first and second in front of him, Dale Earnhardt held back in third, seeming content to just keep Sterling Marlin behind him. After contact with Marlin in the final turn of the final lap, in the words of NASCAR President Mike Helton, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
2011 — This was a Daytona 500 surprise if there ever was one. Trevor Bayne, a regular in the second-tier Nationwide Series and in his first Daytona 500, became the youngest driver to win the race. Throughout Speedweeks, the young Bayne impressed veteran Jeff Gordon with his drafting skills, so much so that Gordon acknowledged confidence in drafting with Bayne. Not many rookies get that level of respect when it comes to restrictor plate racing. In the end, he held off fellow-Ford driver Carl Edwards for the win.
Memorable Daytona 500 lists probably differ greatly among NASCAR fans and those within the racing community, be it because of which drivers won, or age of said individual. This is just my list. What are some of your favorite Daytona 500 moments? Talk to us about them on Twitter @AutoRacingDaily or on Facebook (facebook.com/autorcngdaily). Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner