Deemed by many to be the Superbowl of Motorsports, the Daytona 500 is the season opening race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It is 500 miles long, regarded as the most prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar, and it carries by far the largest purse. As of late the Daytona International Speedway has been plagued by rain delays in February and today is no exception. As we wait yet again for NASCAR officials and track personnel to give the word on whether the race will be finished tonight or tomorrow night, it seems like a great time to look back at some memorable characters that also happen to be past winners of the Daytona 500.
1959-Winner: Lee Petty #42 – Oldsmobile – owner: Petty Enterprises
One of NASCAR’s pioneering forces; Lee Petty won the Daytona 500 in 1959. It all came down to photo finish with Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, and Joe Weatherly. Despite the fact that Beauchamp was named the unofficial winner and sent to the winner’s circle, NASCAR President Bill France, Sr. continued to pour over the newsreel footage and finally (3-days later) came to the conclusion that Petty had in fact won, outright. Lee’s son Richard Petty, the King of Daytona and possibly all stock car racing, also raced alongside his father in this race; finishing 57th out of 59 entries. Lee won three National Championships and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. Lee won 54 races in his career as a race driver.
1960-Winner: Junior Johnson #27 – Chevrolet – owner: John Masoni
Robert Glenn Johnson, better known as “Junior”, is a moonshine hauler turned NASCAR superstar. In the 1970s and 1980s he became a successful car owner employing the likes of Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarbrough. Junior is sometimes referred to as the last American Hero and has written an autobiography by that name. Junior’s father was a notorious moonshiner who spent over 20-years in prison and Junior followed in his footsteps. Though he was imprisoned himself for having an illegal moonshine still, he was proudly never caught in his many years of running moonshine at a high rate of speed. This win at Daytona was his first super-speedway win. Junior was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010. He won 50 races in his career as a driver.
1964-Winner: Richard Petty # 43 – Plymouth – owner: Petty Enterprises
Richard Petty, also known as The King of Racing or the King of Daytona, is best known for being one of only two drivers to win 7-Winston Cup National Championships. This was the first of his many (7) Daytona 500 wins. King Richard went on to win at Daytona in ‘66, ‘71, ‘73, ‘74, ‘79, ’81. He holds the current record for wins at Daytona, which is never anticipated to be broken. Richard was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010. He won 200 races in his career as a driver.
1967-Winner: Mario Andretti # 11 – Ford – owner: Holman-Moody
Mario Andretti, who was born in Italy and later became a naturalized American citizen, is truly a legend and superstar of racing. To date he is the only driver to win the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 (1969), and the Formula One World Championship (1978). Despite the fact that this was Mario’s first and last win on the NASCAR circuit, he went on to have an illustrious career in open-wheeled racing. He was a 4-time Indy Car Champion (’65,’’66, ’69, and ’84) and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000.
1972-Winner: A.J. Foyt # 21 – Mercury – owner: Wood Brothers Racing
Foyt is another well travelled racer who experienced great success not only in NASCAR but also in open wheel racing. A.J. is the only driver who can claim the honor of winning the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 (4-times), the 24-hours of Le Mans, and the 24-hours of Daytona. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000 and named one of NASCAR’s 50-greatest drivers in 1998. He currently owns a racing team called A.J. Foyt Enterprises which has fielded competitive teams in CART, IRL, and NASCAR racing.
1975-Winner: Benny Parsons # 72 – Chevrolet – owner: L.G. DeWitt
Benny was born and raised in North Carolina where he attended and graduated high school. He then moved to Detroit, Michigan where he drove a taxi cab for a time. He followed a racing team to a local track on a whim and when the driver failed to show, Benny took over. The rest, as they say, is history. Benny won this Daytona 500 race of annihilation, as only a record low number of fourteen cars finished the race, due to various crashes and mechanical complications. Benny was named one of NASCAR’s 50-Best Drivers in 1998 and inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994.
1978-Winner: Bobby Allison # 15 – Ford – owner: Bud Moore Engineering
Bobby Allison was one of three renowned racing aficionados to set up shop in Hueytown, Alabama in the late 1950s. Initially, he worked as an engine builder and mechanic but would eventually win the Winston Cup Series National Championship in 1983. This was the first of Bobby’s three wins at Daytona; at the time no driver had started farther back in the field and won. Bobby was voted most popular NASCAR driver seven times, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993, and named one of NASCAR’s 50-Best Drivers in 1998. He lost two sons who were also heavily involved in stock car racing in 1992/1993 in crashes which occurred less than a year apart. His younger son, Clifford Allison died in a race car crash at Michigan International Speedway and Davey Allison passed away at Talladega Superspeedway in a helicopter crash.
1985-Winner: Bill Elliott # 9 – Ford – owner: Melling Racing
“Wild Bill” from Dawsonville, Bill Elliott holds the qualifying speed track record at Daytona and Talladega, both set in 1987. The qualifying speed for Talladega Motor Speedway is 212.809 mph and is the fastest speed for any NASCAR event, ever. The track record at Daytona is only 210.364 mph. The Elliott brothers and Melling Racing had something going on in the mid to late ‘80s that was out of this world. They are largely credited with forcing NASCAR to institute more restrictive guidelines for Superspeedway racing. Bill won the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship in 1988 and was named most popular driver a record 17-times.
Dale Earnhardt, often known as The Intimidator, because of his aggressive style of racing won the Winston Cup Championship a record 7-times (shared with Richard Petty). He raced the Daytona 500 20-times and had many heartbreakingly close finishes, but he won only one time. He is known for racing from the heart and shooting from the hip. As others were whining to press and NASCAR officials Dale would simply state, “That’s racing, I reckon” and continue on with his busy schedule. When asked about being overly aggressive on the racetrack, he would smile sheepishly and reply, “Rubbing is racing.” Dale was named one of NASCAR’s 50-Best Drivers in 1998 and Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010. On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 Dale was involved in a crash that took his life. A car that he owned crossed the finish line first that day, driven by his longtime friend Michael Waltrip. His son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second in a hotly contested battle. I don’t believe that anyone watching or competing against Earnhardt, Sr. that fateful day would have imagined that this would be the outcome. Even after the crash, it was expected that the Intimidator would give the familiar thumbs-up and climb, unscathed from the wreckage. Racing lost a legend that day but NASCAR gained a new outlook on safety, especially where head restraint and concussion are involved. I never knew the “man with the gunslinger moustache” but I have got to believe he died doing exactly what he had lived for.