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CUP: Great American Grid, Positions 1-6

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And here at long last is the full field for SPEED’s Great American Grid, the definitive list of the top 43 performers in Daytona 500 history.

In today’s final installment, we present the front three rows of drivers who have excelled in NASCAR’s biggest race.

Our Great American Grid is comprised of all 35 prior Daytona 500 winners and eight other drivers who made a significant impact on NASCAR’s biggest race.

Here are positions 1-6 for the Great American Grid:

1. RICHARD PETTY — Frankly, the top selection among our 43 drivers was also probably the easiest. Richard Petty, a/k/a “The King,” won seven Daytona 500s, a gold standard no one else even approached. Petty was a central player in two of the most famous 500s ever: In 1976, he and David Pearson crashed on the last lap, with Pearson winning, and three years later, Petty won when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked each other on the last lap going for the victory. In his career at Daytona, Petty had 28 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes, both records.

2. CALE YARBOROUGH — In his day, no one approached Cale Yarborough for toughness. The gritty South Carolina racer won his first 500 driving for the Wood Brothers in 1968 and then won for car owner Junior Johnson in 1977. He scored back-to-back victories for Harry Ranier in 1983 and ’84, making him one of only three drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s. And the race he didn’t win in 1979, when he and Bobby Allison brawled on national television, is the stuff of legends.

3. JEFF GORDON — Here’s where the debate among the SPEED staff grew white-hot: Should Jeff Gordon’s three Daytona 500 victories be ranked ahead of Dale Earnhardt, who only one once but was consistently the man to beat? After a lengthy and heated discussion, Gordon’s victories in 1995, ’97 and 2005 ultimately carried the day, but by the narrowest of margins.

4. DALE EARNHARDT — That Dale Earnhardt was the only driver to win just one Daytona 500, yet crack the top five speaks volumes about “The Intimidator’s” body of work on NASCAR’s biggest stage. Earnhardt had a whole series of near-misses — most notably a flat tire on the final lap in 1990 — before sealing the deal with a hugely emotional victory in 1998.

5. BOBBY ALLISON — Another old-school, bare-knuckled racer, Bobby Allison won three Daytona 500s — 1978, ’82 and ’88. The last one was the most poignant, as Allison took the checkered flag with son Davey in second place. Bobby’s driving career would end later that year after a near-fatal crash at Pocono Raceway. To this day, Bobby has no memory of the 1-2 finish with his late son in the ’88 500.

6. BUDDY BAKER — Elzie Wylie Baker Jr., better known to all as just plain Buddy, was flat-out fast any time he ran on a restrictor-plate track. Recognized as one of NASCAR’s top 50 drivers of all-time, Baker won the 1980 Daytona 500 at an average speed of 177.602 miles per hour, a record that still stands as the fastest Daytona 500 in history. Baker also was the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier on a closed course.

Previously announced were positions 7-43 for the Great American Grid:

7. BILL ELLIOTT — A two-time Daytona 500 winner, Elliott was victorious here in 1985 and ’87. “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was always at his best at fast tracks, as witnessed by his four poles, nine top fives and 14 top 10s in the 500. In 1987, Elliott set the track qualifying record at Daytona, with a lap of 210.364 miles per hour.

8. DALE JARRETT — One of the most famous Daytona 500 finishes of all time came in 1993, when Jarrett won the first of his three 500s by holding off Dale Earnhardt as father Ned Jarrett called the race on live television. The “Dale and Dale show” made for high drama and gave Joe Gibbs Racing its first — and so far, only — 500 victory.

9. DAVID PEARSON — At or near the top of the list for best Daytona 500s ever was the 1976 race, when David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed on the last lap, with Pearson’s heavily damaged Wood Brothers Mercury limping to the finish line to win. Surprisingly, perhaps, that was Pearson’s only Daytona 500 victory, although he did post six top-five finishes.

10. A.J. FOYT — The most versatile driver of his generation, the hard-nosed Texan won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, four Indianapolis 500s and the 1972 Daytona 500. Foyt’s only Daytona 500 came by a margin of nearly two laps, and the ’72 race saw just three race leaders — Foyt, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison — the fewest ever in the Daytona 500.

11. DALE EARNHARDT JR. — Like his late father, Earnhardt excels at restrictor-plate racing, winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 as well as the Coke Zero 400 in 2001. A perennial fan favorite, Earnhardt Jr. has four top-five and six top-10 finishes in 12 appearances in the Daytona 500. He also is a two-time winner of the Budweiser Shootout.

12. KEVIN HARVICK — The driver known as “Happy” rocked the NASCAR world in 2007, when he made a stunning last-lap charge to victory past Mark Martin as half the field crashed behind them. Harvick has two Budweiser Shootout victories, with four Daytona top fives and five top-10s in 10 races here.

13. STERLING MARLIN — The Tennessee native is the last driver to score victories in back-to-back Daytona 500s, winning in 1994 and ‘95 behind the wheel of the Morgan-McClure Chevrolet. Marlin nearly won again in 2002, but during a late-race red flag, jumped out of his car to pull a fender away from a wheel, which was against the rules. Still, he was one of the best restrictor-plate racers of his generation.

14. FRED LORENZEN— Known as “The Golden Boy,” Lorenzen’s main claim to fame was that in 1963 he became the first driver in NASCAR history to win $100,000 in a single season. Lorenzen won the 1965 Daytona 500 and his stats in this race truly are impressive: Seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes in just nine starts. His average finish of 6.9 is the best of any driver with at least five Daytona 500 starts.

15. MICHAEL WALTRIP— The younger Waltrip was winless in his first 462 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, breaking that streak with a stunning upset victory in the 2001 Daytona 500. But just as Waltrip was crossing the finish line, his car owner and close friend Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in Turn 4. Two years later, Waltrip won again in a rain-shortened Daytona 500.

16. DARRELL WALTRIP — One of the most famous victories of all-time came for D.W. in 1989, when he ended 17 years of frustration by nursing home his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to victory with just enough fuel in the tank to win. In Victory Lane, Waltrip performed the “Ickey Shuffle,” a dance named after Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods.

17. TONY STEWART — Despite never winning the Daytona 500, the three-time champion has a tremendous record here, scoring 16 race victories at this track, including three Coke Zero 400s, three Budweiser Shootouts and Thursday’s Gatorade Duel, in addition to six NASCAR Nationwide Series races. He will be one of the favorites to win again on Sunday.

18. BENNY PARSONS — Driving for North Carolina trucking company owner L.G. DeWitt, Parsons won the 1975 Daytona 500. More impressively, perhaps, he scored top-five finishes in eight of 20 starts in NASCAR’s biggest race. He also posted one pole and nine top 10s, and an average finish of 17, which is excellent for a plate track. Parsons went on to become a favorite announcer after retiring.

19. DAVEY ALLISON — The son of Bobby and nephew of Donnie, Davey Allison was a tremendous restrictor-plate racer, winning the 1992 Daytona 500 and finishing second to his father in 1988. Davey surely would have posted bigger numbers, but he made just seven Daytona 500 starts before perishing in a helicopter crash at Talladega in 1993.

20. DONNIE ALLISON — One of the toughest drivers of all time and a charter member of the Alabama Gang, Allison posted two poles and two top-fives in 13 Daytona 500s. But his real claim to fame was the 1979 last-lap crash and subsequent fight with Cale Yarborough as the two were racing for the victory. That fight drew national attention and helped put NASCAR on the map.

21. LEE PETTY — The patriarch of the Petty clan won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, in a photo finish that wasn’t decided until the Wednesday after the race. Petty only made one more start in the Daytona 500, as his driving career ended with a near-fatal crash in a Daytona qualifying race in 1961.

22. MARIO ANDRETTI — The only driver to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and a Formula One world driving championship, the diminutive Italian native stunned the NASCAR community by winning the 1967 500 in a Holman-Moody Ford Fairlane. It was one of just three Daytona 500 starts for Andretti.

23. GEOFF BODINE — By winning the 1986 Daytona 500, Bodine put the fledgling Hendrick Motorsports team on the NASCAR map in a big way. In 21 Daytona 500 starts, the New York native posted five top-five and eight top-10 finishes, along with an average finish of 18.6.

24. ERNIE IRVAN — Called “Swervin’ Irvan” early in his career, Irvan developed into one of the most feared restrictor-plate racers of the early 1990s. He drove the Kodak-sponsored Morgan-McClure Chevrolet to victory in the 1991 Daytona 500 and won the Coke Zero 400 the following year in the same car.

25. JOE WEATHERLY — A two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who was killed in the prime of his career in 1964, Weatherly posted three top-five and four top-10 finishes in just five Daytona 500 starts. Weatherly, known as the clown prince of NASCAR, Weatherly had a great average finish of 11.8 in the 500.

26. FIREBALL ROBERTS — NASCAR’s first superstar, Roberts won the 1962 Daytona 500 driving a Smokey Yunick-prepared Pontiac. He also scored three polls in NASCAR’s biggest race. Tragically, Roberts succumbed to injuries following a crash in the 1964 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

27. KURT BUSCH — Although he’s yet to win a Daytona 500, Busch has been sensational here: three Daytona 500 runner-up finishes and 10 top fives in 22 starts. Last year, Busch won the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel race before finishing fifth in the Daytona 500. He is always a threat here.

28. JIMMIE JOHNSON — In 2006, Johnson won his only Daytona 500 and did so after crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended because the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection. Johnson’s car has been at the center of three Daytona rules controversies.

29. LEEROY YARBROUGH — The 1969 Daytona 500 winner, Yarbrough had two top-five and four top-10 finishes in seven starts in the Great American Race. In the ’69 race, Yarbrough came from 11 seconds back with 10 laps to go, but ran down Charlie Glotzbach for the victory.

30. TERRY LABONTE — The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion made 29 Daytona 500 starts, tying him for second all-time with Ricky Rudd. Labonte had six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, finishing second in 1997 between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Ricky Craven.

31. MARVIN PANCH — One Daytona 500 victory, two top-five and three top-10 finishes in seven starts for Panch, who was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. Panch, a native of Wisconsin, won the third Daytona 500 in 1961, driving a Smokey Yunick-prepared 1960 Pontiac.

32. TINY LUND — A gentle giant, Lund pulled Marvin Panch from a burning sports car at Daytona in 1963, saving his life in the process. The injured Panch convinced the Wood Brothers to let Lund drive their car in the 1963 Daytona 500, which Lund won on a single set of tires.

33. RYAN NEWMAN — Hard to believe, but when Newman won the 2008 Daytona 500, it was the first NASCAR restrictor-plate race victory for Team Penske, dating back to 1972. Newman also has two top-five and three top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500.

34. MATT KENSETH — The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion won the 2009 Daytona 500 when he passed Elliott Sadler just moments before heavy rain fell, forcing a premature end to the race. That was Kenseth’s only top-five finish in the Daytona 500, though he has four top 10s.

35. JUNIOR JOHNSON — NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Junior Johnson is credited with discovering the draft at the fabled 2.5-mile superspeedway, which he used to great advantage to win the second Daytona 500 in 1960. In seven starts in the Great American race, Johnson had one victory, one top-five and one top-10 finish.

36. NED JARRETT — Gentleman Ned, as Jarrett was known, never won the Daytona 500, but the two-time NASCAR champion had two top-five and six top-10 finishes in seven starts in the race. His finishing average was 9.1, impressive given the era he raced in saw a lot of engine failures.

37. WARD BURTON — In what at the time was something of an upset, Burton won the 2002 Daytona 500 driving a Bill Davis Racing Dodge with Tommy Baldwin as his crew chief. For his career, Burton made 10 Daytona 500 starts, with three top-10 finishes and an average finish of 19.7.

38. JAMIE MCMURRAY — One of the best restrictor-plate racers of the contemporary era, McMurray won the 2010 Daytona 500 in his first race back with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. It was McMurray’s only top-10 finish in the 500, though he has also won the Coke Zero 400.

39. PETE HAMILTON — The New England driver with the good looks of a Southern California surfer, Hamilton famously won the 1970 Daytona 500 in the winged blue No. 40 Petty Enterprises Plymouth Superbird. He also swept both Talladega races that year.

40. RICKY RUDD — The main claim to fame for Rudd in the Daytona 500 is that his 29 starts in the Great American Race tie him for second all-time with Terry Labonte. Rudd earned four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in the 500, and in 1984 raced in the 500 with his eyes taped open after a horrible crash in the Busch Clash.

41. TREVOR BAYNE — In one of the greatest upsets in sports history, Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 one day after turning 20 and in only his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup start. And his call on the radio — “Are you kidding me?” — was the definitive NASCAR sound bite of the year.

42. DERRIKE COPE— In 14 Daytona 500s, Cope scored just one top-10 finish, but it was a huge one: Cope won the 1990 500 after leader Dale Earnhardt ran over a piece of bellhousing on the last lap and cut his right-rear tire going into Turn 3. Cope, who was second at the time, took the lead when Earnhardt slowed and scored a huge upset victory.

43. DAVE MARCIS — No one made more career starts in the Daytona 500 than the wingtip-wearing Marcis. In 33 starts in the Daytona 500, Marcis scored three top-10 finishes and led six laps.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.