10 Memorable Daytona 500s
by Tom Jensen February 09, 2024
The Daytona 500 has produced many incredible races over the years. Here are 10 unforgettable examples.
From the very beginning, the Daytona 500 has provided race fans with some of the most amazing races in NASCAR history, with fantastic finishes, huge upsets, record-shattering performances and much more.
Coming up with a “best of” Daytona 500 list is almost impossible and surely a fool’s errand, as there’s no objective criteria for what makes one race better than other. They are all so different and dramatic for any number of reasons.
That said, with the 2024 Daytona 500 set for February 18, we compiled a list of 10 memorable Daytona 500s. These are not ranked, as such, but instead listed chronologically from oldest to most recent.
1959, Lee Petty
The first Daytona 1959 was one for the ages, with a photo finish between Hall of Famer Lee Petty (Class of 2011) and Johnny Beauchamp. Although Beauchamp was originally awarded the victory, a photograph taken by T. Taylor Warren proved Petty the winner. NASCAR Chairman William H.G. France (Class of 2010) officially awarded Petty the victory on the Wednesday after the race. The uniform Lee Petty wore in winning the first Daytona 500 is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as are Petty’s Daytona 500 trophy and Warren’s actual photograph.
1976, David Pearson
The 1976 Daytona 500 came down to the two Hall of Famers with the most career race victories, Richard Petty (Class of 2010) and David Pearson (Class of 2011) and two of NASCAR’s most legendary teams, Petty Enterprises and Wood Brothers Racing. Leaders Petty and Pearson crashed in Turn 4 on the last lap, both hitting the outside wall. But only Pearson was able to restart his wrecked race car, and when he did, he was able to limp back to the start-finish line and take the checkered flag for himself and the Wood Brothers.
1979, Richard Petty
One of the most important races in NASCAR history, the 1979 Daytona 500 was the first 500-mile NASCAR race with live flag-to-flag coverage on national TV. A massive snowstorm on the East Coast kept people indoors, many of whom tuned into CBS, where Ken Squier (Class of 2018) called the dramatic finish. When leaders Donnie Allison (Class of 2024) and Cale Yarborough (Class of 2012) crashed on the last lap, Richard Petty was able to win his record sixth Daytona 500. And a post-race infield brawl between Yarborough and brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison (Class of 2011) only added to the mystique of the race.
1980, Buddy Baker
Buddy Baker’s (Class of 2020) iconic Ranier Racing No. 28 “Gray Ghost” Oldsmobile was built by Waddell Wilson (Class of 2020). Piloting the Gray Ghost, Baker drubbed the Daytona 500 field in 1980, leading 143 of 200 laps and averaging 177.602 mph, despite five caution flags. While this race was not a classic nail-biter in terms of being exceptionally close, 41 years later, it remains the fastest Daytona 500 ever run. Also noteworthy was the 11th-place finish by Janet Guthrie, who was the 2024 recipient of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.
1993, Dale Jarrett
In a battle of Hall of Famers, Dale Jarrett (Class of 2014) held off a furious last-lap charge from Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) to give Joe Gibbs Racing its first Cup Series race win. But the most engrossing part of the story is that Jarrett’s father, Ned (Class of 2011), called the race live on CBS, the cameras panning back and forth between the track and Ned’s wife Martha seated in a van parked in the infield. The race became known as “The Dale and Dale Show,” a phrase coined on the air by Ned during the final lap.
1997, Jeff Gordon
Another feel-good story, the 1997 Daytona 500 saw one team sweep the top three finishing positions for the first time in the race’s long history. Jeff Gordon (Class of 2019) won the race, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Terry Labonte (Class of 2016) and Ricky Craven. From Victory Lane, Gordon called team owner Rick Hendrick (Class of 2017), who was at home, unable to travel because he was being treated for chronic myelogenous leukemia.
1998, Dale Earnhardt
The 1998 Daytona 500 didn’t have all that much drama, truth be told. Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) led 107 of 200 laps and took the checkered flag under caution. But the victory in his 20th Daytona 500 was huge for Earnhardt, who had come tantalizingly close so many times before without ever winning NASCAR’s biggest race. And the view of every crew member from every team lining up on pit road to congratulate Earnhardt is one of the most riveting NASCAR images ever.
2001, Michael Waltrip
The best of times and the worst of times. The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first race broadcast on FOX and Dodge’s first appearance in NASCAR’s top division since the early 1980s. Michael Waltrip, winless in his first 467 Cup Series series starts coming into the race, took the checkered flag ahead of his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Class of 2021). But as they raced to the finish, their boss, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash in Turn 4 on the last lap of the race. What should have been an uplifting story suddenly became one of NASCAR’s darkest days.
2011, Trevor Bayne
One of the greatest upsets in sports history – not just NASCAR history – came when NASCAR’s oldest team, Wood Brothers Racing, hired one of NASCAR’s youngest drivers, Trevor Bayne, who had turned 20 years old the day before the Daytona 500. Despite having only competed in one previous Cup Series race in his career, Bayne never put a foot wrong all day and was able to capitalize on David Ragan’s botched late-race restart to give the Wood Brothers their first race win since Elliott Sadler won at Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring of 2001. For the Wood Brothers, it was their fifth Daytona 500 win with their fifth different driver.
2019, Denny Hamlin
With two previous Daytona 500 wins to his credit, Denny Hamlin was no stranger to Victory Lane at the World Center of Racing. But this one was wholly different, as Hamlin led a 1-2-3 finish for team owner Joe Gibbs (Class of 2020) in the first points race after the death of Joe’s older son, J.D., who passed away on January 11, 2019. J.D. discovered Hamlin when he was just a local short-track racer, and Hamlin always raced with No. 11, the same number J.D. wore as a high school and college football player. Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls and now has five Cup Series championships, called this the single biggest event victory in his entire career.