Monday, February 20, 2012

Daytona 500: Race That Makes Champions

The First Daytona 500
On February 22, 1959, Daytona International Speedway hosted the first Daytona 500. The posted awards for the "500-Mile International Sweepstakes" totaled $67,760. A field of 59 cars took the green flag for the start of the 200-lap race. A crowd of 41,000 was on hand to witness the beginning of another chapter in the history of racing in Daytona.

The finish of the race also went into the history books. The finish was too close to call, but Johnny Beauchamp went to Victory Lane and savored the celebration although the results were posted as "unofficial."

Sixty-one hours later, Lee Petty was the winner in what appeared to be a dead heat between Petty and Beauchamp - with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly making it a three-wide finish at the checkered flag. A clip of newsreel footage proved that Petty was the winner by a few feet.

The Daytona 500 - 50 Years And Still Growing
Fifty years later, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's biggest, richest and most prestigious race.
"The Great American Race," which traditionally hosts a sell out crowd, has the biggest total payout in prize money for any motorsports event in the United States, surpassing the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. The 2007 Daytona 500 posted awards exceed more than $18 million with race winner Kevin Harvick pocketing more than $1.5 million.

Kevin Harvick hoists Daytona 500 Trophy
“It's the ultimate race,” said three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon following his 2005 Daytona 500 victory. “There’s just no better place to win at than Daytona."
Besides the financial aspect of winning the Daytona 500, the victory can also elevate a driver’s status in the sport.

“Winning a race during Speedweeks, it makes you quite a bit more valuable, I think, in the sport as a driver,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 winner.
“If you win the Daytona 500, it will stay with you throughout your racing career,” Sadler said. “It’s really helped a lot of people catapult their careers up to the next level. There are a few races that if a driver wins, owners and sponsors really pay attention too.”

Said 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope: “When you say you have a Daytona 500 win, that’s like a Super Bowl ring.”

2002 Daytona 500
On a restart with six laps to go, Sterling Marlin, running second, slowed as he approached the green flag in order to get a run on race leader Jeff Gordon.
Gordon quickly reacted and blocked Marlin and the two cars made contact. Gordon spun out into the grass while Marlin took the lead but suffered damage to his right front fender. At the same time Marlin and Gordon tangled, a multi-car crash broke out.

NASCAR quickly threw out the red flag and stopped all the cars on the Superstretch to clean up the accident. Marlin climbed out of his No. 40 Coors Light Dodge, walked over to his right front and began to pull the fender away from the tire.

Teams are not allowed to work on their machines under the red flag and NASCAR officials quickly ordered Marlin back to his race car and forced him to start at the tail end of the lead lap.

Marlin’s loss was Ward Burton’s gain as Burton went on to lead the final five laps to become the first Virginian to win the Daytona 500.

Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison delivered quite a show in the first live televised broadcast of the Daytona 500.

On the final lap, Yarborough pulled out to pass Allison on the Superstretch. The two banged fenders so hard they crashed into the Turn 3 outside wall before sliding down to the apron.
Petty and Waltrip proceeded to battle for the victory with Petty holding on for his sixth Daytona 500 win. But it was the show in Turn 3 that continues to make the highlight reels as Yarborough and Allison began a heated debate that turned into a fist fight with Allison’s brother Bobby jumping into the fray.

1990 Daytona 500
This edition of the “Great American Race” offered one of the race’s biggest upsets.
Dale Earnhardt, who had won almost everything at DIS except the Daytona 500, looked like he would finally break his losing streak.
Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3 Chevrolet was the class of the field as he led 150 laps and nearly lapped the field. But Earnhardt couldn’t lead the most important lap - the final one.

It was a classic David Pearson-Richard Petty duel that produced one of the most incredible finishes in NASCAR history.
The showdown had been building for about 100 miles when Pearson, on the final lap, passed Petty on the Superstretch.
Exiting Turn 4, Petty had ducked low and passed Pearson but his car slightly drifted up the track and the two drivers touched and crashed. When both cars came to rest in the tri-oval grass, they still had not crossed the start/finish line.
Petty’s radiator was pushed back into the fan on the front of the engine and the car wouldn’t restart. But Pearson dumped the clutch and kept the car in neutral keeping it from stalling.
Pearson straightened out his damaged machine and slowly crossed the start/finish line to capture the only Daytona 500 victory of his career. The finish was the slowest under green flag conditions in Daytona 500 history.
Dale Earnhardt was an American race car driver who gained fame driving stock cars for NASCAR and winning seven championships. He won his first Daytona 500 in 1998. He was involved in a car accident during the last lap of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2001. He was taken to Halifax Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m. after sustaining blunt force trauma to the head. Earnhardt was 49 years old.
The event was highly publicized and generated intense interest from the media and resulted in various safety improvements in NASCAR auto racing.

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