First-Time Daytona 500 winners
by Tom Jensen February 16, 2023
NASCAR’s biggest race has provided some Hall of Fame moments for racers who scored their first win in the Daytona 500.
The 65th running of the Daytona 500 is set for February 19th at Daytona International Speedway, and a victory in this race will forever immortalize the winner in NASCAR history.
One of the hallmarks of the Great American Race is its unpredictability. In the prior 64 Daytona 500s, nine racers scored their first NASCAR premier series victories in this event. And that includes the last two seasons, when Michael McDowell won in 2021 and Austin Cindric triumphed in last year's race in 2022.
As the keeper of NASCAR’s history and heritage, the NASCAR Hall of Fame has a variety of artifacts from the nine first-time Daytona 500 winners.
Tiny Lund, 1963
Prior to the 1963 Daytona 500, Wood Brothers Racing driver Marvin Panch was burned in a sports car race at the 2.5-mile Florida track. Journeyman driver Tiny Lund was pulling into the infield when Panch crashed and helped remove him from his burning car to safety.
From his hospital bed, Panch told team owner Glen Wood (Hall of Fame Class of 2012) that he should give Lund his seat for the 500. Wood agreed and Lund, who was winless in 131 starts dating back to 1955, took over the driving duties of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Using a strategy devised by crew chief Leonard Wood (Class of 2013) Lund ran 500 miles on a single set of tires and made one less pit stop than his rivals, finishing 23 seconds ahead of Fred Lorenzen (Class of 2015). It was the first of five Daytona 500 victories for Wood Brothers Racing.
Artifact: Tiny Lund’s 1963 Daytona 500 trophy is on display in Heritage Speedway at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Mario Andretti, 1967
Driving for Ford Motor Co.’s factory team, Charlotte-based Holman-Moody Racing, Mario Andretti wasn’t supposed to win the Daytona 500. Ford had targeted 1965 winner Fred Lorenzen (Class of 2015) to win the race again, but Andretti had other ideas. After complaining that his Ford was slow in practice, Andretti asked for a new engine. On the morning of the race, his crew installed a 427-cubic-inch engine built by Hall of Famer Waddell Wilson (2020), who also built the powerplant in Lorenzen’s car.
In the race, Andretti led, but Ford ordered his car held in the pits so Lorenzen could reassume the point. Andretti ran down Lorenzen anyway, winning the Great American Race in just his seventh premier series start. More impressively, perhaps, Andretti and Lorenzen used Wilson’s horsepower to lap the entire 50-car field.
Pete Hamilton, 1970
Much like Mario Andretti three years earlier, in 1970 New England racer Pete Hamilton was the second driver on one of NASCAR’s super teams. In this case, the powerhouse outfit was Petty Enterprises, the dominant team of its era. Founder and family patriarch Lee Petty (Class of 2011) won the first 500 in 1959, and his son Richard (Class of 2010) had already claimed victory in NASCAR’s biggest race twice, in 1964 and 1966. In 1970, Petty Enterprises showed up at Daytona with a pair of high-winged, slope-nosed Plymouth Superbirds designed to cheat the air at 200 mph speeds.
Richard was one of the pre-race favorites, but his Plymouth lost an engine just seven laps into the race, relegating him to a 39th-place finish in the 40-car field. Hamilton had no such issues. He passed defending premier series champion David Pearson (Class of 2011) with nine laps to go, posting his first career victory in his 18th series start. Hamilton went on to sweep both races at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway) in 1970 as well. Hamilton’s crew chief during the season was Maurice Petty (Class of 2014), brother of Richard.
Derrike Cope, 1990
Without question, one of the biggest upsets in Daytona 500 history occurred in 1990 when relatively unknown driver from Washington state named Derrike Cope captured the Daytona 500 in only his third full premier series season and his 72nd career start.
The 1990 race was dominated by Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010), who led 155 of the first 199 laps of the race. But on the last lap, Earnhardt cut his right-rear tire on a piece of debris on the backstretch. As Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet drifted helplessly up the track in Turn 3, Cope zoomed by to take the lead. Although Cope led just five of the 200 laps in the race, he led the one that counted – the final one. It was the first of just two career wins for Cope, who made 428 premier series starts from 1982 to 2021.
Artifact: Derrike Cope’s 1990 Daytona 500 trophy is on display in Heritage Speedway at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Sterling Marlin, 1994
Prior to the 1994 Daytona 500, Tennessee native and second-generation racer Sterling Marlin hadn’t had a whole lot of success in NASCAR. In 278 career premier series starts dating back to 1978, Marlin had never won a race, scoring 35 top-10 finishes but not finding Victory Lane. That all changed in 1994, his first year with Morgan-McClure Racing.
Driving the bright yellow Kodak-sponsored No. 4 Morgan-McClure Chevrolet, Marlin qualified fourth for the Daytona 500 based on a second-place finish behind Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) in the second Gatorade 125 Twin qualifying race. In the 500, Marlin was competitive all race long. With 21 laps to go, Marlin passed Ernie Irvan, the driver he replaced at Morgan-McClure and held on the rest of the way to win. A year later, Marlin won again, at that time joining Richard Petty (Class of 2010) and Cale Yarborough (Class of 2012) as the only drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s.
Michael Waltrip, 2001
After making his first premier series start in 1985, Michael Waltrip went winless in his first 467 career starts, a lengthy record of futility. But that all changed in 2001, when Waltrip won his first of two Daytona 500s in a race with a tragic, and truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot twist. At the 2001 500, Waltrip was making his first start driving for team owner and close friend Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010), who also fielded a car for his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Class of 2021). It was also the first NASCAR race broadcast by Fox Sports television and the first since the 1970s with a Dodge factory effort.
On the last lap of the race, Waltrip was leading Earnhardt Jr. with Earnhardt running third. But as the two leaders raced to the checkered flag, the elder Earnhardt crashed in Turn 4 and died instantly. As a result, Waltrip’s surprising triumph was forever overshadowed by the tragic loss of Earnhardt, one of the biggest stars in the sport’s history.
Artifact: A copy of NASCAR’S official report into Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash is located in Heritage Speedway.
Trevor Bayne, 2011
The start of the 2011 season saw another NASCAR story that if it wasn’t 100 percent true, no one would believe it. In the 2011 Daytona 500, rookie Trevor Bayne won in just his second career premier series start. Bayne’s victory came one day after he turned 20 years old and it was the first victory for NASCAR’s oldest continually operating team, Wood Brothers Racing, since Elliott Sadler won the spring Bristol race in 2001.
A pair of late cautions sent the race into overtime. Bayne took his only lead of the race on Lap 203 of the 208, after David Ragan was penalized for changing lanes too soon on a restart. In a classy move, after the race Richard Petty (Class of 2010) walked his longtime friend and competitor, Wood Brothers founder Glen Wood (2013), to Victory Lane. It was truly a feelgood finish.
Michael McDowell, 2021
Right place, right time. That pretty much sums up Michael McDowell’s victory in the 2021 Daytona 500. With two laps to go, McDowell was riding in fourth place in his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford, behind leader Joey Logano, second-place Kevin Harvick and Logano’s teammate at Team Penske, Brad Keselowski. But Harvick quickly got hung out in the draft, allowing Keselowski and McDowell to each move up a position at the white flag.
On the last lap, as the front-running Penske Fords entered Turn 3, Keselowski made contact with Logano from behind, triggering a massive wreck that brought out an immediate caution flag. Although he led less than half a lap the entire race, McDowell was the victor. It was the Arizona native’s first premier series victory and it came in his 358th series start.
Austin Cindric, 2022
For the ninth time in history and the second year in a row, a first-time winner was crowned in the 2022 Daytona 500. Rookie Austin Cindric, son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, won NASCAR’s biggest race in just his eighth career premier series start.
Cindric, who led 21 of 201 laps, held the point as the field took the green flag with two laps to go. Staying low on the track, Cindric used a push from teammate Ryan Blaney to fend off former Penske driver Brad Keselowski on the outside lane. On the last lap, Blaney went high but Cindric blocked him and held off second-place Bubba Wallace to win.
Artifact: Cindric’s race-winning NASCAR Next Gen 2022 Ford Mustang will be on display as part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Glory Road: 75 Years” exhibit. The car is scheduled to arrive in mid-March. Plan a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.