The Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest stage where triumph is often intertwined with tragedy. As the Great American Race prepares for its 65th running, we spotlight five past installments etched into racing lore for their unbelievable twists of fate.
1979 Daytona 500: The Fight to the Finish
Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battled fiercely over the final laps, beating and banging their way around the track while battling for the win. As they exited turn three on the final circuit, their contact sent both cars spinning into the grass.
As tempers flared, a helmet-flinging fight ensued during a live CBS broadcast stunning the nation. Richard Petty cruised past avoiding the melee to take his sixth Daytona 500 checkered flag. This notorious skirmish boosted NASCAR’s popularity more than any marketing money could.
1980: Barefoot Buddy Barely Beaten
Rookie of the Year candidate Buddy Baker showed up without shoes after forgetting his boots at the hotel. While everyone expected his footwear faux pas to slow him down, Baker dominated nearly the entire race.
It took a desperate late charge from Hall of Famer Bobby Allison with Baker’s engine expiring to beat him by a mere 2 seconds at the line. Baker’s breakout performance made fans take notice of this burgeoning talent.
1996 Daytona 500: The Intimidator Gets Bamboozled
Dale Earnhardt appeared destined to finally win the Daytona 500 in his underdog #3 Goodwrench Chevy. But on the final corner, Sterling Marlin’s contact spun Earnhardt out of a near-certain victory. His crushed hopes and absence from victory lane during Speedweeks became an obsession for both Earnhardt and his legions of fans. His revenge-fueled hunger culminated in an emotional 1998 triumph that removed the thorn in his side.
2011: Young Lion Slays Goliath
Battling Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a green-white-checkered shootout, then 20-year-old Trevor Bayne pulled off a monumental upset that remains unthinkable to this day. Driving the famed Wood Brothers #21, Bayne became the youngest 500 winner ever.
This feel-good David vs. Goliath story gave hope to underdogs everywhere.
2020 Daytona 500: The People’s Champion Finally Wins
In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s shocking death, Ryan Newman survived his own unthinkable tragedy – a fiery last-lap wreck that split his car in half and left him hospitalized. After Newman’s miracle recovery, Denny Hamlin finally claimed an emotional first Daytona 500 victory after years of heartbreak. With grandstands empty due to COVID-19, both Newman and Hamlin’s perseverance spotlighted motorsports’ triumphant return and undying spirit.
The Daytona 500’s unpredictable nature sparks improbable outcomes and allows longshot stories to capture worldwide attention. These five wild races exemplify how tragedy and triumph often go hand-in-hand at the World Center of Racing.