Regardless of my feelings toward the Cup Series (and NASCAR in general), I?ve nevertheless always looked forward to Daytona Speedweeks in the way that a Trekkie anticipates a re-release of The Wrath of Khan. Perhaps this euphoria can be attributed to the uniqueness of the 500 qualifications ? the idea that drivers literally ?race? for their spots in the 500 (well, they used to anyway). Maybe it because the event conjures up a ?big time? feeling that simply can?t be duplicated for just any race. Or, it could simply be the fact that the 500 and company is the first real racing one sees all year.
In any event, the Daytona 500 must be considered one of the premier racing events in the world today, regardless of one?s feelings toward superspeedways, restrictor plates, and stock car racing. Because of that, some iterations of the ?Great American Race? have become classics in the sport. Since the first 500 in 1959, the prestige and illustriousness of the race has grown exponentially.
Perhaps no development has added to the mystic of the 500 more than the first live broadcast of the race in 1979. The race that NASCAR brings up every single year, over and over. Everybody knows the story, but the moment is significant nonetheless.
So, I figure I could rank my personal favorite 500s of the ?CBS? era, in part because all of these races are better known and analyzed. The 1976 Daytona 500 had the greatest finish in stock car history, but I don?t really know much about the other 199 laps. By narrowing it down a bit, I can easily examine the entire race. So let?s get crackin?. Oh, and one very important point. I?m rating the entire race, not just a moment or the finish. I think that?s very important. The ?07 race had a great finish, but the first ¾ of the event was a snoozer. But, a great finish can certainly add to the greatness of the race. All of these races have good to great finishes. Just getting this disclaimer out before someone yells at me because I didn?t put the races everybody else puts.
5. 1979: Ah yes, I return so soon to the much ballyhooed 1979 edition of the Great American Race. All of us have had the finish hammered into our heads by NASCAR, but it?s so damn good I really don?t care. I prefer a battle between two drivers any day over these contrived close pack finishes. Oh wait these two didn?t actually finish the race, did they? I guess NASCAR?s indoctrination hasn?t done that well, has it? The top three finishers represented three of the greatest drivers of the era: Petty, Waltrip, and Foyt. After leading laps 60-69 and 71, Petty would only lead one other lap; the lap that counted.
Beyond the finish, this race had some interesting twists and turns. Buddy Baker, who perhaps had the best car, set the stage for a wide open race when he dropped out with engine problems on lap 38. Tighe Scott had a brilliant sixth place run. Chuck Bown collected his second career top ten ? he would only have two more.
This race also saw the beginnings of a revolution in NASCAR. The aforementioned CBS broadcast can?t be overstated. Dale Earnhardt led his first ten Daytona laps in this event. His 8th place finish would be the first of his many ?close but no cigars.? Coo Coo Marlin would get his penultimate top ten run ? fifteen years before his son would reach the summit of the stock car mountain.
4. 1991: In my opinion, the most underrated 500. Because the race didn?t have a photo finish, no one talks about it. But the race had action from the time the green flag dropped. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this race is that there was no car that ran away from the field. Earnhardt was the favorite going in, but ended up winning the ?Most Bizarre Moment? award by decimating a sea gull with his hood. Even then, Earnhardt still had a car capable of taking the victory ? as did about a half dozen others. It was Kyle Petty that actually led the most laps, with 51 circuits on the board. Also a factor was the black and red 28 of Davey Allison, who would prove to be a factor every year. With a late race caution bunching up the field, the stage was set to see Earnhardt, Petty, and Allison battle it out for the win.
Expect that didn?t happen. They did have a great battle? for second. The three black cars would crash with three laps remaining, ending the hopes of all three teams. Instead, the win would go to Californian Ernie Irvan, who would give Morgan McClure Motorsports the first of their three victories at the 500. At the time, it was considered a bit of an upset. Looking back, however, and it was clear that the race was no fluke. Irvan?s raw talent, combined with MMM?s tenacity on the restrictor plate tracks, made for a great combo which would have three years of success.
3. 2002: Probably the best race of the decade; certainly the craziest (appropriate for this unique season). Like many great 500s, this race saw a couple of the favorites fall by the wayside early. Tony Stewart would kick-off his championship winning season with a blown motor on the third lap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had two tire failures, and would be relegated to also-ran status. Thus the first half of the race saw a multifarious list of leaders: Kenny Schrader, Jerry Nadeau, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch all saw time at the front of the pack.
This set the stage for a chaotic homestretch. Contact between Gordon and Kevin Harvick caused am 18 car crash on lap 149, which took out several contenders. The lead, held by Sterling Marlin at the time of the crash, would be taken by sophomore Kurt Busch and the veteran Gordon during the next forty laps. Robby Gordon spun, bringing out a caution on lap 192 and setting up a battle between Gordon and Marlin.
Once the green flag fell, things got even weirder. On the restart, Marlin tried to make a move on the inside of Gordon in the tri-oval (this as a wreck was happening behind them). In attempting to block, Gordon get spun. Per the unofficial protocol at the time, a red flag is brought out to ensure the race would finish under green.
With the cars stopped on the backstretch, it appeared as though Marlin would be on his way to his third Daytona 500 victory. But Marlin, worried that the contact with Gordon might have caused a tire rub, hopped out of his car and began to tug on the right front sheet metal, breaking the ?Thou shall not work on thy car under a red flag? commandment. He was sent to the back of the field, and would relinquish the lead to Ward Burton. Burton would hold off Elliot Sadler (?!) and Geoff Bodine (??!!) for the win.
It was a victory doused in irony. Burton, who hung around the middle of the pack for the majority of the race, did not have the fastest car, a superlative he actually held the previous year. Of course, that year he was collected in the ?Big One.? A classic tortoise and hare saga.
2. 1996: It was a pretty fun time to be a NASCAR fan at this point. The sport was big, but not too big. Hendrick Motorsports was dominant, but not too dominant. The racing was close, but not too close. And every once in a while, a driver just might surprise you. The 1996 Daytona 500 was a perfect example of the times. The Orlando Sentinel?s Larry Guest summarized it very well by comparing it to Paul Newman and Robert Redford being gunned down in the opening scenes of ?Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.? Indeed, many of the early favorites saw their moments in the sun come early, then quickly fade away.
Pole Sitter and comeback star Ernie Irvan? Hit the wall on lap 20. Defending Cup Champ Jeff Gordon couldn?t even make it that far, spinning out on lap nine. Two-time and defending Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin took the lead on lap 77, only to see his dreams of a three peat go up in engine smoke.
With many of the favorites out of the way, the jockeying for various positions reached a fever pitch. There were 32 lead changes altogether, with fifteen drivers leading at least one lap. Veterans Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader, and Terry Labonte led significant portions of the race. The race also saw some unexpected surprises. John Andretti led 24 laps before having a terrifying crash on lap 129. Wally Dallenbach finished sixth in a car that only received sponsorship at the last second (though the car was still ugly).
But the end was set to be Dale and Dale Part II. When Jarrett took the lead from Dale Earnhardt on lap 177, II don?t think anyone expected Jarrett to stay up front for long. After all, trying to hold off Dale Earnhardt for 23 laps would be like trying to ward off a shark that smells blood. Earnhardt would make his move with ten to go. With five to go. With three to go. With two to go. With one to go. Each time, the Childress motor could overpower the Yates horses. Jarrett did a masterful job in not only holding off Earnhardt those last few laps, but also by just being a contender. With a new team, new pit crew, new car, and a new crew chief Jarrett began the process of shedding his underachiever label.
1. 1983: If 1996 was fun time to be a NASCAR fan, I imagine 1983 was a REALLY fun time to be a NASCAR fan (if you had cable, at least). And just like the ?96 race, the 1983 Daytona 500 is an adequate representation of the racing of the times.
The race was also a perfect representation of the sling shot, which resulted in 5x lead changes, second most in 500 history. No driver had a ?handle? on the lead. Joe Ruttman?s 11 lap turn at the front was the longest time up front in the race. The ?83 edition of the Daytona 500 might have been the scene of Ruttman?s best race, where he led a race high 57 laps en route to 4th place finish. In watching races from that period, there was a sense of inevitability as to when, not if, Joe Ruttman would get his first win in ?Grand National? stock car racing.
Richard Petty led 29 of the first 47 laps before blowing an engine. The man who won seven Daytona 500s would only lead 28 more laps in the 500 afterwards. Dale Earnhardt continued his string of bad luck in February ? he led lap 61, and burnt a piston two laps later.
In the end, the race would be another race where Buddy Baker saw victory slip from his hands. As he took the white flag, Cale Yarborough was licking his chops. On the backstretch, Yarborough used the draft to sling-shot past Baker and would cross the finish line to take home his third 500 trophy.
2001: Race-wise, it would certainly belong on the list. It just didn?t feel right putting it there.
1994: Marlin holds off Irvan to finally enter victory circle.
Daytona 500 Winner: Tony Stewart
First Time Winner: Marcos Ambrose
Most Surprising to Make the Chase: Martin Truex Jr.
Most Suprising to Miss the Chase: Greg Biffle
Most Likely to be "Amicably" Released from Their Ride Mid-Season: David Regan
2010 Sprint Cup Champion: Jeff Gordon (I think he wants one more before he calls it a career)
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