Daytona. Speedweeks. In this era of profound growth and change on the NASCAR landscape, those words evoke everything that's good about the sport of stock car racing. Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway envelop the tradition, the passion, and the competition that place stock car racing alone atop the American motorsports scene.
Bill France's vision when he began NASCAR found its mecca when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, and today, 46 years later, the Daytona 500 stands tall as the preeminent event on the NASCAR schedule.
For the purists, the echoes of the sport's greatest heroes and most memorable races reverberate between the 2.5-mile track's banking. It's where Lee Petty nudged ahead of Johnny Beauchamp to claim the very first Daytona 500 in a photo finish. It's where LeeRoy Yarbrough and Bill Elliott began remarkable seasons with victories. It's where Petty and Pearson battled before crashing on the last lap. It's where Earnhardt won like no driver before or since and where his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., has been dominant.
Yes, legends are born at Daytona International Speedway. Among current drivers, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon stand out with their mastery of the track where it counts most-at the Daytona 500. Jarrett has won the event three times, and Marlin's back-to-back victories in '94 and '95 place him alongside Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to claim consecutive 500s.
Waltrip has claimed two of the past four Daytona 500s, and last year his DEI teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the race for the first time. Those two are clearly among the favorites to reach the track's hallowed victory lane.
A batch of drivers who have never won the 500 are nearing the end of the line, and 2005 will be the last chance at the brass ring for Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin. Terry Labonte will slow down next season, although he will race for two more seasons. Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader are hoping for a few more seasons in the sun, and what better way to start them off than by winning here.
It seems as if every year new stories develop and new stars are born here. NASCAR, unlike other sports, begins its season with its biggest race, and that often sets the tone for the coming season.
That surely happened in 2004, when Earnhardt Jr. won the 500 for the first time and challenged for his first series title. Will it be Earnhardt again in 2005, or will one of the new crop step forward and lay claim to the biggest prize in all of stock car racing? Jamie McMurray has shown signs of stardom, and Kasey Kahne set the record for near-misses in a single season last year. He'll have a full year under his belt and he will be one to watch for 2005.
The great thing about Speedweeks in Daytona is that it offers new hope for a new season. The sun seems to shine brighter here for those two weeks, the breeze more refreshing, and the hustle and bustle of race fans going about their routines seems to have primal urgency. It's a great place to be, a great place to work, and a wonderful way to start the season.
Now, with a nod toward the '05 calendar, we offer our perspective on the history of Daytona and its fabled track and a look at what Speedweeks 2005 might have in store.
5 Favorites To Win The Daytona 500Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Say the words "restrictor plate" and DEI's main driver comes immediately to mind. He's the defending Daytona 500 winner, he has some unfinished business with the old track, and he's just plain bad fast there.
Michael Waltrip: Ditto. In what may be his last season with DEI, Mikey likely wants to remind DEI what it's missing if he leaves at the end of 2005. He's proven he can win here, taking advantage of DEI's mechanical advantage and earning some big points for himself in that regard.
Kasey Kahne: Sure, he's never won a Nextel Cup race, but he's done everything you can do without actually winning. The former sprint car driver has had little trouble adapting to the bigger stockers and seems unafraid to put his nose into the tightest of cracks at 200 mph. It's a good bet that Kahne will be the next driver to win his first Cup race, and it could come here.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson is on the verge of a breakout of cosmic proportions-he is from California, you know. He's done well enough here to earn the right to a favorite's role, despite never having won here, and he's as legitimate a championship contender as there is in the garage.
Jeff Gordon: He's won two Daytona 500s ('97 and '99) and is still the youngest ever to win at age 26. With Hendrick's recent surge on restrictor-plate tracks, he's as good a bet now as he was when he won his first two. The four-time series champion is still one of the best at what he does, and that includes racing at Daytona.
Honorable mention-Jamie McMurray: Jamie barely missed the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and over the final 10 races of the season he was as stout as anyone. With Ganassi power and another year of experience, he's primed to become the next superstar. The second step on that road could come here.
Ryan Newman: Doesn't exactly have a stellar record at Daytona, but no driver today can flat-foot like this guy.
Elliott Sadler: Hey, he's coming off his best season ever and teammate Dale Jarrett has won three 500s, including two in a Robert Yates Ford.
5 Best daytona 500sThe best race in Daytona 500 history has to be the first one in 1959, where Lee Petty needed three days and some luck to beat Johnny Beauchamp to the finish line by two feet. Joe Weatherly made it a three-wide finish, but was two laps down at the time. NASCAR officials did not have today's electronic scoring, so it took quite a while to study the photos and make a determination on the winner. With the help of a newsreel, NASCAR determined it was Petty by a scant two feet.
Richard Petty's seventh and last Daytona 500 victory came in 1979, after leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the last lap. Much of the nation saw the race, due to a late snowstorm that socked in the northern half of the country. They also saw the famous two-on-one fight between Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie. While that fight was occurring on the backstretch, Petty beat Darrell Waltrip to the finish line by a single car length.
The 1976 battle between David Pearson and Richard Petty is one of the most memorable in history. The two were beating and banging coming down for the white flag and it lasted a full lap until the exit of Turn 4. With the checkered flag waving, Pearson and Petty tangled, sending both cars into the wall and then down through the grass in the tri-oval. Pearson was able to keep his car running and limped across the finish line first. Petty finished second despite never being able to cross the finish line under his own power.
Derrike Cope's surprising victory in 1990 ranks No. 4. With less than half a lap remaining, Cope was running a strong second to Dale Earnhardt when the latter blew a left rear tire. How Earnhardt kept it off the wall is the stuff of legend, and Cope ducked past to earn his first career NASCAR Cup victory, much to the surprise of himself, and pretty much everyone else on the planet.
Buddy Baker's 1980 triumph ranks fifth, as the gentle giant won in as dominant a performance as has ever been recorded at Daytona. Driving Harry Ranier's Oldsmobile, Baker averaged 177.602 mph and led 143 of the 200 laps. The average speed record still stands-not even Bill Elliott could beat it when he dominated the 1987 running.