The Great American Race, the “other” name for the Daytona 500, should be an event marked by great finishes, and the 500 certainly has filled that requirement over the years.
Picking the best finishes of NASCAR’s most important race is a tough task and a good starting point for some serious bar debates. Here’s a shot at the 10 best finishes of the 53 Daytona 500s, in calendar order:
The Longest Finish (1959) – The first Daytona 500 took only three hours and 41 minutes to run (remarkably, there were no caution flags), but three days were needed to decide the winner. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp crossed the finish line side by side (along with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly), and Beauchamp originally was declared the winner. But, after several days of studying photographs and film of the finish, NASCAR president Bill France Sr. changed lanes and awarded the win to Petty.
The King Versus The Silver Fox (1976) – In possibly the most dramatic 500 finish, David Pearson won the race at an alarming speed of about 30 miles per hour. He and Richard Petty crashed in the fourth turn while racing for the win on the last lap, and Pearson kept the engine in his battered Mercury running despite the mayhem. He chugged across the finish line at a snail’s pace to score his only 500 victory.
A Fight To The Finish (1979) – The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered a landmark race in NASCAR history because of the swells of publicity it produced. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed while racing for the win on the last lap. As Bobby Allison (Donnie’s brother) and Yarborough exchanged fisticuffs in the infield after the wreck, Richard Petty inherited the lead and scored his sixth 500 victory.
A Fuelish Victory (1981) – Richard Petty’s last Daytona 500 win was scored on pit road, and it resulted in one of the most emotional victory lanes in the race’s history. Dale Inman, Petty’s long-time crew chief, made the critical call to bring Petty in for fuel only late in the race, taking the chance that the Buick’s tires would last the rest of the way. Petty outran Bobby Allison by 3.5 seconds to win the race. Inman, who had decided to leave the Petty team after the race, cried in victory lane.
Like Father, Like Son (1988) – Father-and-son driving combinations fill NASCAR history, but one of the biggest days for family life in the sport occurred Feb. 14, 1988 when Bobby Allison won the 500 with his older son, Davey, coming home in second, two car lengths behind.
Earnhardt Can’t Cope (1990) – Dale Earnhardt’s long search for a win in his sport’s biggest race appeared to be at an end in the 1990 race before chaos erupted on the final lap. Earnhardt dominated the race, leading 155 laps, and was in front on the last lap. But he ran over a piece of debris, blowing a tire, and was forced to slow. Derrike Cope inherited the lead and scored one of the biggest upsets in 500 history.
Cheering In The Press Box (1993) – The 1993 500 became the Dale (Earnhardt) and Dale (Jarrett) Show, and it ended with Jarrett scoring his first of three wins in the race. When it became apparent that Jarrett would be a key player on the final lap, CBS handed the play-by-play call of the finish to Ned Jarrett, Dale’s father, in the broadcast booth. Playing the role of cheerleader, Jarrett urged his son forward, saying, at one point, “All right, come on. Bring her to the inside, Dale. Don't let him get down there.” Jarrett beat Earnhardt to the finish by .16 of a second.
Finally, The Intimidator (1998) – Dale Earnhardt had “lost” the Daytona 500 in virtually every way imaginable. When he finally won the race on his 20th try, finishing in front of Bobby Labonte under caution, the sport celebrated with him. Crew members from every team lined up along pit road to congratulate Earnhardt as he made his way to what had been an elusive 500 victory lane.
Harvick Outguns Martin (2007) – The arrival of the green-white-checkered finish in NASCAR racing added a new dimension to the 500. The race added two extra G-W-C laps in 2007, and Kevin Harvick was the man on the move at the finish. As a huge accident erupted behind him, Harvick outran Mark Martin by .02 of a second to win the race. Behind Harvick, Clint Bowyer finished the race on his roof, his car aflame.
And A Child Shall Lead Them (2011) – The 2011 race finish pitted 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, a raw rookie, against the giants of the sport, and the kid won. Crashes extended the race into eight laps of overtime, and Bayne was the ultimate survivor, riding to the finish first with drafting help from Carl Edwards. Bayne’s win returned the Wood Brothers team to Daytona’s victory lane.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.