Flashback Friday: The Ten Biggest Daytona 500 Moments

Jacob Seelman Featured, Jacob Seelman Blog, NASCAR, Southeast, Staff Columns 0 Comments

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Editorial by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —

It’s Friday of Speedweeks — that means there’s a Truck race tonight at the Daytona International Speedway.

But, that also means its #FlashbackFriday, and while I haven’t gotten in on the act (or those like it) before on social media, I have been thinking a lot about this weekend’s upcoming Daytona 500.

I figured, why not offer up a list of the ten moments that stick out most in my mind from the legendary lore of the Great American Race? I’ve seen fourteen of them myself, and broken the VHS tapes watching myriads more from my parents’ days in the sport as part of the RaDiUs Motorsports No. 55 machine.

So here it is — in advance of the 57th Running on Sunday — my ten biggest moments from the Daytona 500!

10. 2002 — Sterling Marlin Does WHAT?

Marlin — driving the Coors Light Silver Bullet for Chip Ganassi Racing — was battling for the lead in 2002 when Jeff Gordon threw a block across Marlin’s nose on a late race restart, spinning himself and damaging Marlin’s right front fender. Marlin hung on to grab the lead from Ward Burton racing back to the caution flag, but quickly realized that the fender was too damaged for him to contend for the win as is.

In perhaps the biggest blunder in 500 history, Marlin got out of his race car, with national television cameras watching, and tugged on the fender (trying to get it off the tire) before a NASCAR official got out of the pace car and shepherded the two-time 500 champion back to his car.

Due to NASCAR rules prohibiting any work on the race car during red flag conditions, Marlin was sent to the tail for the restart. Ward Burton inherited the lead after the mishap — and went on to win his first and only 500 that afternoon.

9. 2010 — The Infamous Pothole Debacle

How can we forget the 2010 classic? Yes, the one that was delayed more than six hours because the track literally started coming up in turn two.

I actually thought this one might end under a red flag, but the props went to NASCAR on this night — through the tireless efforts of track workers with blowtorches and buckets upon buckets of Bondo, and despite two hours and 27 minutes of red flag time for two “pothole delays” — they got the entire 500 miles (and then some, because of two green-white-checkered finishes) in for the race fans.

This one is remembered too much for the lowlights, but it did have one shining moment — Jamie McMurray held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his first-career 500 victory and showed the raw emotion of motorsports through his victory lane interview. Good stuff, indeed.

8. 1959 — Photo Finish

The 1959 Daytona 500 was special for many reasons — it was the inaugural running of the event and it was the first test of “Big Bill” France’s legendary creation in Daytona Beach, Florida.

It also took three days to determine the winner.

Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and the lapped car of Joe Weatherly came across the start/finish line three-wide in a finish too close to call. Beauchamp was originally declared the winner by NASCAR officials, but after all available newsreel footage and photo images came in, the No. 42 of Lee Petty was awarded the win in one of NASCAR’s closest finishes ever — corroborating Petty’s claims after the race.

“I had Beauchamp by a good two feet. In my own mind, I know I won.”

And he did indeed.

7. 2012 — Fire and…Jet Dryers?

Less people remember the 2012 Daytona 500 for Matt Kenseth claiming the checkered flag than they do for the moment that nearly ended the race 100 miles early.

Run under the lights on a Monday night after rain postponed the event for the first time in its 54-year history, the race went yellow at lap 157 after David Stremme’s engine expired down the backstretch. Once the leaders had come down pit road, NASCAR was prepping for a restart….before Juan Pablo Montoya’s Target Chevrolet broke a trailing arm while he cas catching up to the back of the field, sending the Colombian’s race car skidding helplessly into a jet dryer stationed on top of the banking in turn three.

The jet dryer exploded and began to leak 200 gallons of kerosene across the race track from its ruptured fuel tank — and was lit by a spark moments after Terry Labonte’s car passed through it, igniting the stream into a wall of fire.

6. 2007 — Blaze of Glory; It’s Harvick!

I won’t lie — the finish of the 49th annual Great American Race ticked me off for weeks after the checkered flag flew.

In a race that started in mid-afternoon and ended under the lights, the finish of the 2007 Daytona 500 came down to a two-lap dash and Mark Martin out front trying to win the race that had eluded him for so many years driving for Jack Roush.

However, Kevin Harvick had other plans. Harvick, with a push from Martin’s former teammate Matt Kenseth, stormed up the outside lane in turn three and pulled alongside Martin exiting the final corner. As a crash erupted behind Martin and Harvick, the two drag-raced to the line — and Harvick stole the victory from Martin by 0.02 seconds at the checkered flag.

It was heartbreak for NASCAR’s perennial bridesmaid and chaos for everyone behind the pair of rivals — as numerous cars skidded and crashed across the line (including Clint Bowyer coming across upside-down and on fire) — marking one of the most spectacular finishes in 500 history.

5. 1976 — Petty vs. Pearson

1976 was the year that everyone remembers as the height of the (Richard) Petty vs. (David) Pearson rivalry — because it had the most spectacular finish in the history of the pairing.

Pearson used the slingshot to pass Petty down the backstretch on the final lap and Petty tried to return the favor off of turn four but wasn’t quite clear, coming up across Pearson’s nose and sending both cars careening into the grass. Petty stopped closest to the start/finish line, but was unable to get his engine to refire — while Pearson’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford stayed running and he was able to limp across the line to take the Woods’ fourth victory in the Great American Race.

The victory was the Silver Fox’s only Daytona 500 triumph.

4. 1993 — The Dale and Dale Show

1993’s Daytona 500 finish was the story of a father calling his son home to victory.

Dale Jarrett took the lead from the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, coming to the white flag with his father Ned in the broadcast booth for CBS Sports. In one of the most famous television production moves in NASCAR history, the CBS Sports producers came over the headsets to the trio of Ned, Ken Squier and Neil Bonnett and told Ned to “call his son home” — with the final lap quotes telling the story better than anything else possibly can.

“Come on, Dale! Go, buddy, go! All right, come on! I know he’s got it to the floorboard; he can’t do anymore! Come on! Take ‘er to the inside! Don’t let ’em get on the inside of you comin’ around this turn! Here he comes, Earnhardt; it’s the “Dale and Dale Show” as we come off Turn 4! You know who I’m pulling for, it’s Dale Jarrett. Bring her to the inside, Dale! Don’t let him get down there! He’s gonna make it! Dale Jarrett’s gonna win the Daytona 500!!!”

Ned Jarrett, CBS Sports, during the final lap of the 1993 Daytona 500.

The victory was Dale Jarrett’s second career NASCAR premier series victory and the first of three Daytona 500 crowns (1993, 1996 and 2000) for the eventual Cup champion.

3. 2001 — Black Sunday

This was the first Daytona 500 I ever watched live, flag-to-flag. It was the first network NASCAR broadcast for FOX Sports.

It was also the first race that I remember never being able to forget.

In what was supposed to be a shining day for the sport of stock car racing, Michael Waltrip won the race and snapped a 462 race winless streak, dating back to the start of his career, while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. But in the same moment, Ken Schrader, Sterling Marlin and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt crashed in turn four and slid to a stop in the infield grass.

While Waltrip celebrated, Earnhardt was cut from his car and rushed to Halifax Medical Center, leaving everyone praying for the best but fearing the worst. And at 7 p.m. local time, NASCAR President Mike Helton delivered a message that is seared into the minds of race fans everywhere to this day, including mine.

“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

Editor’s note: I want to re-clarify this is not a list of the 10 greatest Daytona 500 moments — but rather the 10 most important ones in my mind. I struggled all week with whether to include this on the final list, but in my professional opinion, few moments in 500 history have had an impact as far-reaching as the conclusion of the 2001 race — on both the race itself as well as NASCAR history as a whole. 

2. 1998 — Finally! After 20 Years of Trying…

Mike Joy called it “the most anticipated moment in all of NASCAR racing”. And on Feb. 15, 1998, that’s exactly what Dale Earnhardt’s win in the Great American Race was.

Earnhardt, who in 19 previous tries had everything happen to prevent him from winning the Daytona 500 — a flat tire while leading on the final lap in 1990, hitting a seagull in 1991, and being passed on the last lap in 1993 among the heartbreaks — was able to capitalize on a caution with a lap and a half to go and use the lapped car of Rick Mast as a pick to hold off Jeremy Mayfield and Bobby Labonte for his first and only Daytona 500 victory.

The memory from this race was not just Earnhardt claiming the Harley J. Earl trophy after two decades of heartache, but the throng of congratulations and “every man on every crew” coming out to the edge of pit road to congratulate the man who had won everything there is to win in the Cup Series — except the Daytona 500 — until that day.

Buddy Baker said “it will make the strongest man on earth cry when you win (the Daytona 500), it’s really special.”

And for Dale Earnhardt, and every race fan in attendance that day — on some level — it was.

1. 1979 — “And There’s a Fight!”

If this isn’t every sane NASCAR fan’s number one Daytona 500 moment of all time, I don’t know what is. This was literally the perfect storm — the East coast was snowed in to watch the first-ever flag-to-flag live television broadcast of the Great American Race and the ending of the event would put NASCAR on the national map for years to come.

Cale Yarborough had fought his way back from almost three full laps down to be in contention with longtime rival Donnie Allison in the final laps. Once the pair took the white flag, Yarborough attempted to make a slingshot pass down the backstretch and hit the wet infield grass, loosing control and slamming into Allison before they crashed in turn three and slid into the grass.

Richard Petty, who was a half lap behind at the time of the incident, went on to win his sixth Daytona 500 — but that didn’t matter when CBS jumped back to turn three to Ken Squier’s famous words: “And there’s a fight — between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison!”

“Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going,” said famed broadcaster and Speedway Illustrated editor Dr. Dick Berggren. “It was the first ‘water cooler’ race, the first time people had stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before. It took a while – years, maybe – to realize how important it was.”

And to this day, no moment in Daytona 500 history has been as important as “The Fight”.

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Those are my ten most impactful moments from Daytona 500 history — but they aren’t all of the standout moments from the past 56 years of racing at NASCAR’s most historic speedway.

What do you think are the most impactful moments in the Great American Race? Let us know in the comments section below!

And in the famous words of Jean Shepherd, “If horse racing is the sport of kings, then auto racing; this furious, and sometimes brutal game, is the sport of friends. New, or old; come along, friend, and enjoy the Great American Race!”

We’ll see you on Sunday for this year’s running. Until then, Godspeed.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

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