10 Daytona 500 Wins That Took Fans by Surprise

By Jennifer Hassan in NASCAR
| February 14, 2020 9:07 am PST

The race that starts the NASCAR season is this biggie out at Daytona Speedway. Five hundred grueling miles of heat and speed and mistakes and frustration equals a lot of fury poured out onto that pavement.

Sometimes the favorite wins. But not all Daytona 500 races end anything like what we expect. Here are the most surprising Daytona 500 wins in the race’s history.

Lee Petty, 1959

  • Surprising because the trophy was accidentally granted to the second-place winner

As the drivers in the field during the 1959 Daytona 500 raced toward the finish line, two cars were ahead of them all: Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty. Those two cars crossed the line at virtually the same moment, and the trophy (and the glory) were given to Beauchamp.

However, after gaining access to a photo taken at the right moment, the award was taken away from Beauchamp and given to Lee Petty, and thus, a Daytona 500 dynasty was born. Lee’s son Richard won the Daytona 500 seven times.

Ward Burton, 2002

  • Surprising because Sterling Marlin stepped out of his car onto the racetrack to work on his car, giving up his lead

This was the 44th Daytona 500 to be run. Sterling Marlin was no rookie, no newcomer to the famous track. In fact, his father, Coo Coo Marlin, was a NASCAR driver.

So when Marlin, who had a solid chance of winning, exited his car during a red flag to work on his car, announcers were dumbstruck. Marlin walked to the front of his car while all other drivers were at their wheels, ready to race forward when the green flag set them back into motion.

Sterling yanked at his bumper, trying to make some space between the damaged part and the front wheel. He was penalized for this mistake, and Burton took Marlin’s lead, thank you very much, and won the race.

Tiny Lund, 1963

  • Surprising because Lund had ten days to prepare for the race, and he beat a field of veteran racers

Marvin Panch was supposed to drive the winning car in this 1963 race, but this winner of the 1961 Daytona 500 had sustained an injury just days before when his car had caught on fire. Panch’s friend Tiny Lund pulled him from the burning wreck (and won a Carnegie Medal for heroism in the process).

Tiny Lund, a man standing at nearly six and a half feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, was asked to take Panch’s place driving in the Daytona 500 the following week.

The Daytona 500 was still relatively new in ’63, but Tiny stayed the course for almost three and a half hours and took the flag. Reportedly, he won because he took four pit stops instead of five.

Derrike Cope, 1990

  • Surprising because pure luck hit just seconds before the finish line

As noted above, the Daytona 500 takes hours. The drivers travel 500 miles in 200 laps around a 2.5-mile track. So, when Dale Earnhardt had completed 499.5 miles and was racing toward the finish line, which was right there, everyone thought the race was in the bag.

Unbelievably, Earnhardt drove over a piece of another driver’s engine, puncturing his tire, and had to climb the embankment on turn three, allowing Cope to race past him to the finish line. Bad timing, back luck for Earnhardt, and a miracle for Cope.

Bobby Allison, 1988

  • Surprising because Allison and his son came in first and second

1988 was a good year in the Allison household, as dad Bobby won the first major race of the NASCAR season, the Daytona 500. What’s amazing, and mathematically mindboggling, is that his son Davey came in right behind him to finish in second place.

Our office statistician tells me that the chances of a father taking first right ahead of his son are somewhere around 1/1560.

This race offered another surprise in the form of Richard Petty’s jaw-dropping crash that had him rolling on the front grill of his car against the barrier eight times before the car made it back to all fours, whereupon it was hit, head-on, by another driver. The fact that Petty survived what is considered one of the most severe crashes of Daytona Speedway history is a testament to the strength of his car.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., 1998

  • Surprising because all NASCAR teams at the track put aside their differences in a moment of kinship

Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been struggling to win the Daytona 500 for years and years. And years. Twenty years, in fact. When he finally did make it first to the checkered flag, crews from all teams flooded the track, making a long line of honor to pay tribute to this indefatigable NASCAR legend.

NASCAR races can be frustrating, dangerous, and even deadly. Driver arguments and team clashes are common. Moments of track-wide harmony are rare. Remarkably rare. Thus, when pit crew members of every racing team on the field lined up to high-five Earnhardt, fans and announcers grew emotional.

It’s remembered to this day as one of the most remarkable moments in NASCAR history.

Richard Petty, 1979

  • Surprising because no one was paying attention to Richard Petty

Richard Petty went virtually unnoticed as he set up to take his victory lap because of petty behavior elsewhere on the track.

Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough had been angry at each other all day. Never mind that it cost tons of money, time, and training to make the field at the Daytona 500. These two began ramming each other until they both crashed.

Then the fight continued on foot as the two men flailed their arms and legs like toddlers deprived of a rocky road ice cream cone. Well, every driver on that track that day wanted to make history. These two succeeded, even better than winner Richard Petty.

As a sensitive person who wants to respect the situational justification of a difficult race, as well as the innate humanity of both Allison and Yarborough, I am uncomfortable replaying this hilarious slap-and-tickle exhibition over and over. Uncomfortable, but not entirely unwilling.

Mario Andretti, 1967

  • Surprising because Formula One driver makes a seamless transition to NASCAR

Mario Andretti is considered to be one of the best drivers ever to take the road. As Danica Patrick has said, “You just can’t keep him out of a car. And that’s probably why he’s driven in everything. And won everything.”

When Andretti took to the pavement at the Daytona Speedway in 1967, it was only his seventh NASCAR start. He had no trouble acclimating himself quickly.

Mario was driving a Ford for the Holman-Moody team, the team that dominated racetrack Ford built during the decades of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Most drivers new to NASCAR would be intimidated by the Daytona 500 track size, race length, and impressive list of highly competitive veteran drivers.

However, Andretti had no trouble fitting into the field and then quickly standing out. From his first race in an old Hudson on a dirt track to dominating the cutthroat world of Europe’s Formula One circuit, he’s displayed nothing less than the inborn talent of the true “natural.”

Fun fact: Andretti is the first driver born outside of the USA to win the Daytona 500.

Pete Hamilton, 1970

  • Surprising because winning the mammoth Daytona 500 was Hamilton’s first career victory

What a way to start a driving career! Pete Hamilton, working with crew chief Maurice Petty (Richard Petty’s brother), beat Dick Trickle and Ron Keselowski (Brad’s uncle), as well as a host of veteran drivers, to the checkered flag.

Hamilton drove a Plymouth Superbird that was distinctly different from cars that drove in earlier Daytona 500 races. This year, at the beginning of the new decade, was considered the first year of “contemporary” racing. Cars were now clearly built for speed, designed around the idea of a racetrack win, instead of trying to get ordinary models racetrack-ready.

This race lasted nearly 3 ½ hours, dragging out the already excruciating length of this endurance race. Furthermore, one quarter of the race was conducted under yellow caution flags, when drivers must not attempt to gain an advantage but must simply drive in a line behind the pace car until the track is again cleared and safe for driving at speed.

This would have been a tough race even for a Daytona 500 veteran winner, but the fact that it was run and won by a lad without any career wins under his belt is remarkable. How do you top a win like this?

Matt Kenseth, 2012

  • Surprising because the race took place overnight, amidst rain and fire. What’s surprising is that any car even finished this race, much less won it

Matt Kenseth may have been the first to the finish line, but every driver who finished the race that early Tuesday morning must have been feeling pretty heroic. The tensions among drivers and teams were at an all-time high on Sunday, as all geared up for what is arguably the biggest race of the racing calendar.

Then, because of pouring rain, the race was postponed to Monday afternoon. Still, there were weather issues. So the race began at about 7 p.m. Monday night.

All was going well until Juan Pablo Montoya (the most handsome man in NASCAR, IMHO) hit a jet-fuel-powered track dryer. An inferno ensued, and the track had to be cleared for a couple of hours to get it race-ready again.

So the drivers are exhausted, their nerves are frayed, and it’s midnight. The race continues, and Kenseth takes the victory. His exultation at the win must have been second only to gratitude that this godforsaken race was finally over.

In Conclusion

Every Daytona 500 win is a surprise to someone. Usually, it’s the winner (unless your last name is Petty). Sometimes drivers have to keep asking, “Wait, who? Me? Really?”

The fact that this race can be so unpredictable can make betting on the Daytona 500 challenging, but it can also make it that much more fun.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this look at what I consider the most surprising Daytona 500 wins in history.