The Daytona 500: Awesome Racing, Amazing Finishes

The Daytona 500 is called “The Great American Race” by many – and for good reason. For 55 years the Daytona 500 has provided race fans with thrills, chills and, yes, even spills, all combined with fantastically close and sometimes controversial finishes that leave even the most seasoned race fans emotionally drained.

It’s also known as the most important NASCAR race – the first race of the season, with the largest purse.

Daytona International Speedway

The Daytona International Speedway (DIS) is a 2.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway covering 480 acres in Daytona Beach, Florida. DIS opened in 1959 with the inaugural running of the Daytona 500 and has been the home of the 500 ever since. The term “tri-oval” refers to the track configuration – unlike oval tracks with two turns connected by two straights, the front “straight” at DIS has a dogleg to the left at the location of the start-finish line. This unique configuration and the steeply banked turns (31°) allow fans to view 90% of the track from any seat in the house.1

Qualifying for the Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 has a qualifying system unlike any other race, one that seems to take into account everything except the phases of the moon in allocating the 43 starting spots. Here’s who makes the starting lineup: the two fastest cars from the time trials; the first 15 cars from each of two 150-mile qualifying races; the four fastest cars from qualifying that have not already earned a starting spot; the six cars having the highest owner points from the previous season; and the last position goes to the most recent eligible NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who did not make the field by any other method, or to the car with the next highest owner points from 2013.2

In a 500-mile race, is qualifying all that important? Yes, it is. The first four to six cars have a pretty clear track in front of them and a greater chance of getting through the first part of the race unscathed. In a closely bunched field, as at Daytona, any driver error or car malfunction in the pack will usually result in a massive pile-up – there just isn’t room or time for the other drivers to take evasive action. Drivers back in the pack have a higher risk of being innocently caught up in a crash caused by another driver’s mistake.

daytona 500 pit crew

Where to Watch the Big Show

The green flag drops at Daytona on Sunday, February 23, 2014, shortly after one o’clock. The 56th running of the Daytona 500 will be televised in its entirety on FOX network starting at 1:00 p.m.  You may also want to log on to NASCAR’s website and sign up for RaceView to get real-time driver and crew audio, pit stats, driver telemetry, and other goodies on your PC or mobile device. The DIS official website will have the latest action, driver profiles, photo gallery and trivia throughout the day.

Ticket prices range from $65 to $195 each for reserved seats; $399 to $2,890 for camping and RV spots; and special packages go for between $295 and $1,885. Ticket information is available on the DIS website, but remember, the 500 is the most highly rated and watched race of the year and tickets went on sale late last summer. Tickets may be hard to come by and, if you can get them, you can be sure they won’t be cheap.

daytona 500 racing

A History of Close Finishes

The Daytona 500 has a long history of nail-biting and sometimes controversial finishes. The closest finish since the advent of computer scoring and timing was in 2007. Kevin Harvick pushed his Goodyear-shod Chevrolet past the similar mount of Mark Martin coming out of the last turn on the last lap, and crossed the finish line a mere 0.020 seconds ahead of Martin.3

Whole books have been written about Daytona’s fantastic finishes, but let’s take a look at two that were not only dramatic, but that also created unprecedented media buzz, helping to make NASCAR and the Daytona 500 the giants that they are today.

Crash of the Titans

– The bicentennial Daytona 500 in 1976 saw NASCAR icons Richard Petty and David Pearson pull awayfrom the pack to make the race their own private contest. Petty led at the start of the last lap, but Pearson dived to the inside going into turns one and two, and led as they roared down the back straight nose to tail. Petty tried to return the favor and went to the inside of Pearson into turn 3. As they exited the final turn side by side and headed for the finish line, both were barely in control. The inevitable contact between the cars caused Pearson to spin into the outside wall and slide back across the track onto the infield grass. Petty struggled to continue, but finally lost control completely and also hit the outside wall and skidded down onto the infield grass, but still heading toward the finish line. It looked like Richard Petty would be the first 500 winner to cross the finish line sideways, but it was not to be. His car stopped sliding about 150 feet from the finish line and his engine stalled. While Petty frantically tried to get the engine started, Pearson got his damaged car moving and limped across the finish line to win the Daytona 500.4

Fight to the Finish: And Beyond

– 1979 was the first live national telecast of the Daytona 500 from start to finish– and what a finish it was! NASCAR legends Cale Yarborough and the racing Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, were involved in what became the most talked-about racing finish in the country.

As these things usually do, it happened on the last lap, with Donnie Allison in the lead followed closely by Cale Yarborough. As they came onto the back straight, Cale attempted to pass Donnie on the inside. Donnie was having none of this and moved over to attempt to block the pass. Who was at fault depends on which driver you ask, but the cars bumped several times and both went spinning into the outside wall and then slid down onto the infield grass, out of the race. An opportunistic Richard Petty sped by to take the victory. But wait; there was still action out on the track. Bobby Allison stopped on his cool-off lap to check on his brother, and what started as a bit of trash-talking between Cale and Bobby broke out into full-fledged fisticuffs, with Donnie jumping into the fracas. All of this was caught on live TV and broadcast nationwide. It was replayed on virtually every sports show in the country, was talked about for weeks afterwards, and was even reported in the New York Times. It put the Daytona 500 and NASCAR on the map nationally and they’ve never looked back.5

Wherever you watch the Daytona 500, enjoy the action of some of today’s fastest drivers going fender to fender for 500 miles, but remember your history lesson – don’t miss the finish!


    1. Daytona International Speedway
    2. How to Qualify for The Daytona 500
    3. Daytona 500 Series: 2007 Race Produces Closest Finish in History
    4. SI Flashback: Greatest Daytona 500?
    5. 1979 Daytona 500

Photo credits to Kyle May and the U.S. Army (1, 2) on Flickr.

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