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NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments from the Daytona 500

Parker Kligerman celebrates NASCAR's upcoming 75th anniversary season with a historical look at two of the sport's iconic tracks - Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

The Daytona 500 has been NASCAR’s marquee race since its beginning in 1959.

The giant Daytona International Speedway, built by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to replace racing on the Daytona Beach shore, was like nothing stock car racers had seen. Darlington Raceway had opened in 1950 as NASCAR’s first big asphalt track, but Daytona was in its own league – 2.5 miles long and high-banked, producing speeds and tight competition that changed the game.

MORE: Daytona track schedule

Over the years, what became known as the “Great American Race” has seen close finishes, spectacular accidents, the evolution of high-speed drafting and, unfortunately, the loss of one of stock car racing’s all-time greats.

As another Daytona 500 beckons, here’s a look at 10 historic moments from the race’s history:

NASCAR Power Rankings

  1. 2001 – The saddest 500 of them all. Dale Earnhardt, racing for position in the top 10 on the last lap, crashes into the fourth-turn wall and dies from injuries suffered in the wreck. Earnhardt’s death leads to major safety advances in race cars and speedway landscapes.
  2. 1976 – The 500’s greatest finish. David Pearson and Richard Petty, the sport’s two titans at the time, crash exiting Turn 4 with the checkered flag in sight. Pearson, never losing his composure, presses the clutch in his car to keep the engine running and rumbles across the finish line at about 30 mph to win the race. Petty watched from his damaged car on the grassy area between the track and pit road.
  3. 1979 – Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison fought over this one, and the winner was Richard Petty. Yarborough and Allison crashed in Turn 3 on the last lap racing for the win. Their cars slid off the track, and Petty, a distant third, roared past them for the victory. Yarbrough and Allison, joined by Donnie’s brother Bobby, had a physical disagreement about the matter as CBS cameras sent the images to a race audience made larger by an Eastern Seaboard snowstorm that encouraged inside activity. The resulting publicity was a huge boost for NASCAR.
  4. 1998 – Dale Earnhardt, frustrated in NASCAR’s spotlighted race for two decades, finally drove into his sport’s biggest victory lane, sparking a wild fan celebration that has rarely been matched. As Earnhardt cruised down pit road, members of every team lined up to congratulate him.
  5. 2004 – Dale Earnhardt Jr., the trajectory of his career changed forever by his father’s death in the 2001 race, scored an immensely popular victory three years later.
  6. 1959 – A crowd of more than 40,000 turned out for the first Daytona 500, and they witnessed quite a finish. Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly (in a lapped car) crossed the finish line side-by-side-by-side. Beauchamp was declared the winner, but several days of examining photos and film resulted in NASCAR giving the victory to Petty. The attendant publicity gave Bill France’s new race several days of headlines.
  7. 1990 – This one is hard to beat in the category of startling moments. Dale Earnhardt seemed bound to finally score his first win in the 500, only to run over debris on the final lap and blow a right rear tire. Earnhardt’s car slipped toward the wall, and underdog Derrike Cope shot past him to steal the win.
  8. 2007 -- Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin crossed the finish line side-by-side as cars wrecked behind them. Harvick won by .02 of a second, frustrating Martin, who never won the 500. The last-lap accident resulted in Clint Bowyer sliding across the finish line upside down, his car on fire.
  9. 2012 – Juan Pablo Montoya shared headlines with race winner Matt Kenseth. Driving fast under caution to catch up with the rest of the field, Montoya lost control of his car because of a rear suspension problem and slammed into a jet dryer near Turn 3, sparking a huge fire. Neither Montoya nor the jet dryer driver were injured, but photos of the incident were splashed across news media spaces for days.
  10. 2011 – This one went to The Kid. Twenty-year-old Trevor Bayne, rolling along expertly in the tandem draft that ruled that year’s competition, won the race for Wood Brothers Racing, returning the iconic No. 21 car to victory lane at Daytona.