The Best and Worst Moments in the History of the Daytona 500

By Jennifer Hassan in NASCAR
| February 14, 2020 5:00 am PDT

In a race that’s 500 miles long and run at nearly 200 mph, there will be stories.

There are crashes and clashes and mashups and foul-ups. Here is my list of the best and worst moments of the Daytona 500’s history.

Best Daytona 500 Moments

It’s always nice to start off on a positive note, so I’m going to cover the best moments first. Here are some of the top bright spots in Daytona 500 history.

1989, Darrell Waltrip

Who among us hasn’t pushed the envelope and let our gas gauge dribble down to zero? Well, that’s what Waltrip did during the 2003 Daytona 500. He passed his crew time and again, forgoing a gas-up in order to keep up his time.

He sputtered a few times and saved as much fuel as possible by drafting everyone he could. Finally, he sputtered his way across the finish line for a pretty valiant win in ’89.

1998, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Dale Earnhardt had been dominating NASCAR for years. He’d won just about everything he could, except for the famed Daytona 500 race. It seemed that every time he drove this race, something would interfere, and another driver would take the win.

Then, in 1998, he finally succeeded in adding this victory to his long list of wins. In what is considered one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history, every member of every team’s pit crew lined up to congratulate him. It’s a gorgeous moment of respect.

2013, Danica Patrick

The driver who gets the prime pole position for the Daytona 500 is determined a week earlier in a qualifying round that determines the drivers who will take the number one and number two spots.

In 2013, the winner of this qualifying round and thus the driver given the coveted number one spot a week later at the Daytona 500 was Danica Patrick, the first woman ever at pole position in the race.

Only 12% of pole position holders go on to win the Daytona 500, and this year, it was Jimmie Johnson who took the trophy. But it was still a red-letter day for Patrick and an inspiration for female competitive drivers everywhere.

Rough Moments at the Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 is famous for more than just its peaks and highlights. There have also been some events remembered for unfortunate reasons.

1988, Richard Petty

Anyone who saw this race will remember this crash. Considered one of the worst ever at the Daytona track, Petty’s car was forced into twirling on its nose eight times against the track barrier before it was able to fall back to all four wheels…where it was promptly smashed head-on by a competitor.

For a few moments, the Daytona 500 looked like a demolition derby. The fact that Petty survived that crash is a testament to the seat belt.

2002, Sterling Marlin

Marlin had a good chance to win this race. He had taken a number of victory laps in races around the country, from Bristol to Charlotte to Nashville.

But when he exited his car and worked on his bumper during a red flag, all the hard work and the money and the efforts of the pit crew were for nothing. Marlin was penalized for working on his car during a red flag, and the win went to another.

Worst Daytona 500 Moments

The Daytona 500 is undeniably risky. With so many drivers competing at such high speeds for so many hours, there are countless moments where things could go wrong. It’s lead to some tragedies over the years.

2001, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took second place in the race, and Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 for the first time this year (he won again in 2003). But the day was marred for all when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was involved in a vicious, head-on collision with a concrete barrier.

Earnhardt Sr. had to be cut out of his car, and he died en route to the local hospital.

1994, Neil Bonnett

Bonnett died in the exact same way that Earnhardt Sr. did, only seven years earlier. Bonnett was in a practice session for the Daytona 500, not in the final race, and that’s really the only difference.

Bonnett hit a concrete wall head-on, received massive head injuries—as did Earnhardt Sr.—and died at the same hospital, two miles down the road.

The Daytona 500 “What Just Happened?”

But there are more than just good and bad moments at the Daytona 500. Some moments are infamous for being out there or just a bit unfortunate. Here are a few of those instances.

1978, Richard Petty and David Pearson

These two drivers had already been rivals for years when they met at Daytona Speedway in 1978 for what is arguably the biggest race in the NASCAR calendar.

They jockeyed for position for most of the race, leapfrogging positions until the inevitable happened: they crashed into each other, bounced off walls, and stalled out.

Petty’s team tried to push his car back to life, but it was Pearson who limped like a wounded bear across the finish line. A victory, but not a pretty one.

1959, Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty

Beauchamp and Petty crossed the finish line neck and neck, and Beauchamp was pronounced the victor and took the victory lap. A few days later, a photo surfaced that showed that Petty was the actual winner, and thus the prize was taken away from Beauchamp and re-gifted to Petty.

1979, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough

During the first race that was televised nationally from start to finish, drivers Allison and Yarborough became so antagonized that they began deliberately ramming their cars into each other. It was as if winning the race was forgotten, and all that existed was that one take the other out of the race, period.

One of the Pettys won that race, probably Richard, but Allison and Yarborough were beyond caring. They got out of their cars and began that kind of weird kicking and slapping fight that you expect to see out of frustrated children.

Because this was a race seen coast to coast, NASCAR gained the reputation as being populated by hothead roughnecks.

It’s a bit of a shame, because just two weeks earlier, Cale Yarborough had given a speech at MIT on the importance of teaching foreign languages in elementary school to foster a new, more collaborative world order. (Okay, I just made that up.)

2001, Pontiac Aztek

The Daytona 500 has seen a number of great makes and models used as pace cars, from Bonnevilles to Camaros and even a Chevy Silverado. In 2001, the track made the inexplicable decision to use a Pontiac Aztek, one of the ugliest, most awkward cars ever designed. I just don’t know how some things make it through quality control.

1989, Darrell Waltrip

His win this year is mentioned above, but his victory dance is famous for how truly terrible it is. Pinocchio had less wooden movements. Take a look. You will feel so much better the next time you take to the dance floor, because you will now know it’s impossible for you to be the worst dancer ever.

Waltrip did mention in a 1988 interview that if he puts Tabasco on his eggs in the morning, he races to the finish line so he can use the bathroom in a hurry. He must have spiced them good for this Daytona win, and it may go some way to explaining his marionette-style gyrations.

Wrapping It Up

Unlike Talladega Nights, NASCAR isn’t all intelligence and glamor. Sometimes its dirty, tough, and downright deadly. But as any fan will tell you, it’s always exciting, and made even more so if you’ve got money on the race.

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