Daytona 500: 5 Most Memorable Moments of Past Races

by Chris Haney
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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series is officially back. Just two days from now, all your favorite drivers will return for the 2022 opening season race at Daytona International Speedway. For the 64th time in racing history, all eyes will be on the Daytona 500 as the season gets underway.

While fans eagerly await “The Great American Race,” they’ve got extra motivation to be excited for the start of the new season. NASCAR will roll out their newest rides when the Next Gen cars debut at this weekend’s main event. The change to the cars is the biggest alteration to the sport in years, and one that most fans have welcomed.

While some things will look different in Daytona this weekend, others will stay the same. Take defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson for example. He’s already picked up where he left off last season. On Wednesday, Larson clocked the fastest single-car qualifying time to capture pole position for the start of Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Hopefully, by the time officials wave the checkered flag on Sunday, NASCAR fans will have been treated to another classic race in Daytona. The historic track has seen many amazing battles through the decades. To celebrate the Daytona 500 and the beginning of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, we’re revisiting five of the most memorable moments from past races.

A.J. Foyt Guarantees Daytona 500 Victory (1972)

In 1932, while Babe Ruth was at the plate he called his shot. Ruth pointed to the outfield wall with his bat and proceeded to hit a home run. Joe Namath guaranteed the New York Jets would win Super Bowl III in 1969, and they did. In 1972, racer A.J. Foyt took a page out of their book and guaranteed that he’d win the Daytona 500 that year, and that’s exactly what he did.

One year prior, Foyt looked like he’d win at Daytona as he led all drivers at the end of the race. However, in the final minutes, Foyt’s car ran out of fuel. The next year, Foyt knew he’d have another good run on the famous track. He was so confident as the Daytona 500 approached, he publicly guaranteed to take the checkered flag.

Foyt would follow through on that promise in dominating fashion. He not only won the big race, but became only the second driver alongside Mario Andretti to win both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.

‘The Fight’: Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison Duke It Out (1979)

Many have called the 1979 Daytona 500 the most important race in NASCAR history. This was the race that put NASCAR on the map and gained the sport national popularity. It had everything race fans could’ve asked for – great racing that came down to the final lap, a huge wreck, and a brawl between drivers.

This was the first NASCAR race to ever be televised live in its entirety. And cameras captured one of the wildest finishes to any race ever at Daytona International Speedway. In the last lap, leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battled for first. While going around Turn 3 though, the pair collided. Yarborough rammed into Allison and the two cars slid all over the track, hit the exterior wall, and eventually slid to the infield ending their day and their chance for the win.

“The King” Richard Petty would happily take over and cruise to the finish line for his sixth Daytona 500 victory. But the action wasn’t over just yet. Yarborough and Allison got out of their wrecked cars and went at it. Donnie’s older brother, Bobby Allison, joined the fight as well before all three men were separated. In fact, the moment would become known simply as “The Fight.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. Finally Takes the Checkered Flag (1998)

Following nearly two decades of frustrating finishes at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Sr. finally won the coveted race. The Intimidator had won almost every other variation of the race at the speedway. That included a pair of 400-mile races, seven Nationwide Series races, and more. Yet the Daytona 500 eluded him for 19 years.

There wouldn’t be any flat tires this time around. There were no unplanned pit stops or poorly-timed cautions to keep Earnhardt from the checkered flag. After the iconic driver won, he slowly motored down pit road as his competitors congratulated him. Crew members from every race team lined up down pit road for handshakes and high-fives.

Whether a fan of Dale Earnhardt or not, it seemed like everyone celebrated his overdue Daytona 500 victory. The historic win is widely known as the “the most anticipated moment in racing.”

‘Black Sunday’ at the Daytona 500: The Death of Dale Sr. (2001)

Arguably the most memorable moment of the Daytona 500 is also the saddest. Only three years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. won “The Great American Race,” tragedy struck the racing world.

On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt started the race in second place behind teammate Michael Waltrip who had the pole position. On lap 173, a huge wreck took out 18 cars and left few cars fully intact. With only two laps left, Dale Sr. trailed only his 26-year-old son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Waltrip who still led all drivers.

Heading into Turn 3, Earnhardt got stuck in the middle of the pack and eventually made contact with Sterling Marlin’s car. That caused the No. 3 car to crash into the wall at an estimated speed of 155-160 mph before it slid down the steep banking and into the infield grass. Waltrip would go on to earn his first Winston Cup victory with Junior taking second.

After Dale Jr. crossed the finish line, he stopped at his father’s wreck to check on him. Medics at the scene rushed Dale Sr. to the Halifax Medical Center, but it was too late. Officials pronounced the legendary driver dead after he suffered a fatal skull fracture in the crash.

The incident sent a shockwave through not only racing, but the whole sports world. Earnhardt’s passing would bring a renewed interest in driver safety as new standards were quickly put in place for cars. Since Earnhardt’s death, no other drivers have lost their life in a Cup Series race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Follows In His Father’s Footsteps (2004)

For various reasons, multiple cars that poled higher than Dale Earnhardt Jr. were forced to move to the back of the pack before the race began. That left Junior in the first spot as he led the opening laps of the 2004 Daytona 500.

After his father passed away on the same track, Dale Jr.’s stardom took off. It felt like everyone was pulling for Junior to win one for his dad anytime he raced at Daytona. Multiple wrecks throughout the race took out several drivers, including 12 eliminated cars in a multi-car crash on lap 71. After the restart on lap 81, the rest of the race came down to two drivers – Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The pair led for a combined 101 of the remaining 120 laps. But Junior passed Stewart in Turn 3 of lap 181 and didn’t look back. After defending his lead the rest of the way, Dale Jr. won his first of two Daytona 500s. From the fans in the stands to the media covering the race to his fellow competitors, everyone seemed thrilled for the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy and its driver, especially after he lost his father on the same track just three years prior.

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