This will be the 49th running of the Daytona 500. Photo by Sam Sharpe
Only 90 days separate the 2007 Daytona 500 from the end of the 2006 NASCAR season, essentially giving major league stock car racing a nine-month season. Traditionalists, however, can take solace in that while the end of the season and the 500 are relatively close on the calendar, they're light years apart in terms of what they mean to the sport. Indeed, the Daytona 500, at its essence, may be the last bastion of hope for the traditionalists.
NASCAR's season-ending Chase for the Cup is all about marketing and hype and TV ratings, but no matter how it's marketed and hyped-and it gets plenty of each-the Daytona 500 each year represents the tradition, hope, and excitement that lifts the sport to the top of the country's sporting consciousness.
Yes, despite itself, NASCAR still begins each season with the very essence of the sport on display.
Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, and the first 500-miler on February 22 of that year set the stage for the track's almost mystical existence. Three days after Johnny Beauchamp was originally declared the race winner in a photo finish with Lee Petty, NASCAR's Bill France, utilizing still photography and video, declared Petty the actual winner.
Since that public relations home run by France-he supposedly milked all the drama he could get from the finish-Daytona has lived a sometimes charmed, sometimes cursed existence. It is, after all, the track where crashes have claimed the lives of several drivers over the years, none more memorable than Dale Earnhardt's last-lap wreck during the 2001 Daytona 500. That race, however, momentarily validated Earnhardt's decision to put journeyman Michael Waltrip in the DEI No. 15 Chevy, as Earnhardt was driving to protect the lead, and eventual win, of Waltrip when the fatal crash occurred.
Earnhardt's lone win in the historic race-one of his 34 wins overall at Daytona-stands among the many February classics the facility has produced. After years of frustration in the 500, including a blown tire that allowed surprise winner Derrike Cope to prevail in 1990, Earnhardt turned in a dominant performance in 1998. His win kicked off NASCAR's 50th anniversary season.
The list of storybook Daytona 500's is a long one. In 1963, 10 days before the 500, Tiny Lund helped pull Marvin Panch from a flaming sports car at Daytona. From his hospital bed, Panch then asked Glen and Leonard Wood, whose No. 21 Ford Panch was slated to drive in the 500, to allow Lund to take his place. Lund then won the race.
David Pearson's win in 1976 may be at the top of the list of memorable races at the 2.5-mile track. Pearson and Richard Petty were engaged in a last-lap duel when their cars collided while coming off the fourth turn. As Petty's car limped to a stop approximately 100 feet from the finish line, Pearson was able to keep the engine running in his Wood Brothers Mercury and coast to the win. It was arguably the greatest finish ever in the sport's premier race. And it featured two drivers who were still at the top of their sport during hall of fame careers.
Surely, NASCAR could never top that.