It Just Means More

For the first time since 1979, Daytona stood quiet in the first week of February.

The standouts from last season participated in the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, a race that before this season made its home annually at Daytona. Since it’s inception 43 years ago, the race has undergone many changes to it’s format and formula for entry but you could always count on the Clash to renew your energy for the upcoming 500.

Only one sport starts it’s season with their marquee event. Football saves the Super Bowl for the end of the season, same with baseball and the World Series. The NBA Finals caps off a season that started almost 9 months prior.

It is unprecedented in racing as well. Indycar uses the entire month of May to prepare for the 500. The F1 season feels like every race comes with some form of championship implication.

The 500 though? It means a lot more than just the beginning of a new season.

Is it a championship? No, but that doesn’t make it any less important in the eyes of a driver. They know the significance.

In 1959, Lee Petty held off Johnny Beauchamp by mere inches to win the inaugural race. It took 3 days to decide the winner. That began the aura. Lee would never win another Daytona 500, and would actually suffer career ending injuries in the same race two years later. His son Richard would find more success at Daytona, winning a record 7 Daytona 500’s before hanging up his fire suit in 1992.

For one legend, the path to victory lane wasn’t as easy.

Dale Earnhardt Sr was a 7 time NASCAR Cup Series champion. He won every race you could think of, probably twice over. The 500 eluded Earnhardt in every possible way. In 1986 while engaged in a battle with his then rival Geoff Bodine, he would run out of gas with 3 laps to go and blow the engine coming out of the pits. In 1990, what seemed to be a sure thing ended up a shattered dream coming off of turn 4 with a tire flattened by debris. The next year he’d tangle with Davey Allison while battling for the lead on lap 198 and bring a bruised and bloodied Goodwrench Chevy home in 5th. 1993 would bring the Dale and Dale show, with Earnhardt on the losing end of a battle to the line with Dale Jarrett and the upstart Joe Gibbs Racing team. The feat would be repeated in 1996 with Jarrett in front but this time driving for Robert Yates Racing. 1997 seemed like it would be the year, but the race would be turned upside down for Earnhardt on lap 190 as his car barrel rolled down the backstretch at Daytona. The race is famous for Earnhardt getting out and noticing that vehicle still cranked. He would shoo away the people in charge with carrying the car away and drove it to the pits to make repairs. The car would finish 5 laps down in 31st, while his new nemesis Jeff Gordon would win his first. Just what did Dale have to do to win this race?

By 1998, doubt had started to creep in. Earnhardt came off of a year where he didn’t win a race for only the second time in his career. He also fell ill in the the Southern 500 that year, a scary moment that included a bout of disorientation where Earnhardt couldn’t find his pit for several laps and had to be removed from his vehicle after blacking out. But nothing kept Dale out of the car for long. But the ills of the past few years were silenced that February when he finally achieved his greatest victory in the 500. The call from Mike Joy, poetic:

“Labonte up high! Earnhardt uses the lapped car of Rick Mast as a pick! 20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500! Finally!”

On the cool down lap, 1980 winner Buddy Baker said something that was poignant. “Victory in the Daytona 500 will make the strongest man on earth cry.” This was followed by a garage long procession of handshakes and congratulations and ended it with Earnhardt’s Cheshire cat-like grin in victory lane.

When drivers strap in on the 3rd Sunday in February, they also know of the risks the race bring. They are aware of the lives lost just trying to make the race as well. In 1994, the sport lost one of it’s greatest personalities in Neil Bonnett during practice for the Daytona 500. It was a comeback of sorts for Bonnett, who had been out of the car for several years and was contacted by his friend James Finch to see if he still would like to give it a go. A broken shock mount would cause the car to swerve viciously head on into the wall. Neil was only 47. A few days later, 1993 Goody’s Dash champion Rodney Orr would lose his life at the track as well.

But there has been no bigger loss than that of Dale Earnhardt’s at Daytona. On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, while protecting the cars he owned including the one of his son, the elder Earnhardt was killed after a collision with the wall. In the now 21 years since his passing, the sport hasn’t seen a fatality. In 2020, Ryan Newman would survive a horrific wreck coming to the checkers. Richard Petty had a similar sidewinding wreck in 1988, but only walked away with a bruised ankle. Rusty Wallace went for a terrible, end over end somersault ride but was out of the car mere seconds later. Daytona is a less than forgiving playground.

But for all of the scary moments, sentimental moments do exist in the race’s rich history. Shortly after Petty’s wreck in ’88, a battle for the win would occur between the father and son pairing of Bobby and Davey Allison. The father would prevail, with Davey finishing second. There was a beer soaked celebration in victory lane. 93’s Dale and Dale show would feature the rarity of a color commentator calling the end of the race as CBS’ Ned Jarrett, the father of Dale Jarrett, would call his son home for at the time his biggest win of his career. There was elation, there was Dale’s mother Martha pacing in the family van, as she didn’t want to be in the suite. It would end with Father and Son doing the interview in victory lane. In 1997, Hendrick Motorsports would finish 1-2-3 in the race for the first team sweep of the top 3 positions in the race’s history. It was especially bittersweet for the Hendrick team, as owner Rick Hendrick was not there to greet his team. Rick was home recovering from Leukemia. He would speak with winner Jeff Gordon via cell phone in victory lane and the team would hold up a sign of encouragement.

Daytona is also a household name. If you asked someone who had no idea what NASCAR was to name a track, they’d more than likely say Daytona. That may not have been possible if it wasn’t for a snowstorm in February of 1979. In an age before cable, you were only granted a few options of channels to watch and CBS was one of them. There was a huge snowstorm along the east coast which kept people home and watching television. If they were watching that day, they got to see one of the greatest finishes in race history as part of the first of its kind flag to flag coverage when Cale Yarburough and Donnie Allison clashed on the final lap and neither made it to the finish. The winner that day would be Richard Petty, but the race is better known by the fight that ensued between Cale, Donnie and his older brother Bobby. 15.1 Million viewers tuned in that day, and until 2001 CBS was tasked with bringing the 500 to viewers around the world.

One could go on all day with tales that feel like moments straight out of a storybook. If you’re a legend, chances are your name is etched on that Harley J Earl Trophy. If you’re a hall of famer, you’re at that breakfast the morning after the race. Daytona has seen drivers give their blood, sweat and literal tears to taste the champagne in victory lane. The Earnhardt’s and Allison’s are the only father and sons to win this race. For some, Daytona is their only win. Others can race close to 30 years and never take it, like Mark Martin did in 2007.

If you don’t watch but one race this season, make it the Daytona 500. The chances of seeing something magical is greater than you think. You may be seeing the beginning of history in the making.

Featured photo from Toyota Newsroom.

Published by Phillip Spain

A 25 year veteran in the world Motorsports, Phil loves anything with an engine. When he’s not watching cars, he’s out with family.

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