The Daytona 500 is today, marking the sport’s biggest event as a new season gets underway from the World Center of Racing. NASCAR is unique in that it starts its season with its Super Bowl, meaning that the driver holding the Harley J. Earl trophy Sunday night will be a winner all season long, no matter how well they run the rest of the 2015 Sprint Cup campaign.
Many people can recognize video of the great finishes at the 500, such as when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed on the final lap and Pearson limped across the line in 1976, or when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s crash led to a post-race fist fight, and Petty came from half a lap behind to win in 1979, or when Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin by a fender while the “Big One” happened behind them in 2007, or the photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp in the very first 500 in 1959.
Other images are filed in the most memorable category, from veteran drivers finally winning the 500 after years of trying, like Darrell Waltrip in 1989 and Dale Earnhardt in 1998, to Ned Jarrett doing impromptu play-by-play while simultaneously cheering son Dale Jarrett across the line in 1993 and 1996, and Darrell Waltrip doing the same with brother Michael Waltrip in 2001, although the final lap of that 500 became more remembered for a legend lost in the final corner when Earnhardt was killed.
The 500 has also produced some major upsets, like Trevor Bayne winning his second Cup Series start in 2013, or Derrike Cope slipping past Earnhardt after The Intimidator cut a tire in the final turn in 1990, or little-known Pete Hamilton won his first race at the Speedway in 1970.
Others aren’t necessarily memorable for their winners, but other circumstances, like the jet dryer explosion in 2012 in the only Monday 500 due to rain, or Danica Patrick becoming the first female pole sitter in any NASCAR race in 2013, or the aforementioned 1979 race, also known as the first live flag-to-flag broadcast of a race.
But some 500s aren’t remembered as much as they might should be. Whether it’s because the principles involved didn’t have names like Petty and Earnhardt, or because they have simply been slowly forgotten over time, some 500s had outstanding storylines or finishes, but are never mentioned among the greatest moments in the history of the Great American Race.
Here are the top 10 underrated Daytona 500s:
Honorable Mention: 1967: Mario Andretti
While there wasn’t anything particularly special about the racing in this 500, the mere fact that one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest champions came to Daytona and won, albeit early in his storied career, may very well have added to the prestige of what was still at that time a very young event. This was comparable to A.J. Foyt’s win five years later, but Mario’s came first.
10. 1986: Geoff Bodine
The race was dominated by the tandem of Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine, and turned into a fuel mileage race late. Earnhardt had to pit with three to go for a splash-and-go, but there should have still been some drama to see if Bodine could make it on fuel. Instead, Earnhardt overshot his pit stall, then blew his engine leaving pit road. With Earnhardt out of the picture, Bodine was able to cruise to an 11-second victory, which was owner Rick Hendrick’s first in the 500. It was also the first of many near misses for Earnhardt before he finally won in his 20th try in 1998. The clip of Earnhardt overshooting his pit is sometimes shown, particularly when talking about Daytona heartbreakers, by Earnhardt or overall, and is accompanied by pit reporter Chris Economaki’s line of “it looks like Mr. Bodine is gonna be the beneficiary.”
9. 2010: Jamie McMurray
The 2010 finish didn’t necessarily include too many big names, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from nowhere to take second on the final lap, but the late race battle between McMurray, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick saw three lead changes in the last ten laps, a period which included two cautions. McMurray’s win was in his first appearance for what was then known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (now Chip Ganassi Racing), and was a popular win in the garage as McMurray is well liked by everyone. Earnhardt Jr. came from in the teens with a few laps to go to second on the final lap with a massive run up the middle, and caught McMurray, but couldn’t pass him, part of a stretch of three runner-up finishes in four years from 2010-13 before Junior won his second 500 last year. This race is more remembered by some for the pothole which developed in turn one which red flagged the race twice than it is for the winner.
8. 2008: Ryan Newman
The 50th Daytona 500 had a special pre-race ceremony honoring all 31 former winners of the 500, but Ryan Newman joined that group later that evening by passing Tony Stewart on the final lap to win the race. Newman had a push from teammate Kurt Busch, and Stewart blocked them at first, before jumping to the bottom with teammate Kyle Busch. At the time the win was Newman’s first since 2005, although he has since had a career renaissance, including a second place points finish in 2014. This race is the biggest near miss for Stewart in the 500, which he still has not won, going into his 17th career try on Sunday. Kurt Busch has also not won the 500 in 14 tries, although he will not be in Sunday’s race due to his recent indefinite suspension for domestic violence.
7. 1980: Buddy Baker
Before Darrell Waltrip won his first 500 in his 17th try, and before Earnhardt won his first 500 in his 20th try, there was Buddy Baker. He went into the 1980 race attempting to win it for the 18th time, after often having one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks, driving for Petty Enterprises, Ray Fox, Bud Moore, and Cotton Owens, among others. He came to Speedweeks in 1979 with Ranier-Lundy, and had the fastest car, which won the pole, but blew its engine in the early going of (in my opinion) the greatest Sprint Cup race in history. A year later he had an equally fast car, winning the pole again, but this time leading 143 of the 200 laps on his way to the victory. The race was, and still is, the fastest 500 in history, averaging 177.602 mph. Baker held the record for most attempts before winning the race until Earnhardt won his only 500 in 1998.
6. 1960: Junior Johnson
This race isn’t necessarily known as the most exciting race ever run, but it has much more historical significance than most other 500s that have been run. This was just the second running of the race, and the Daytona track, as well as the concept of running on a 2.5-mile superspeedway, was still in its infancy. Johnson ran the race in a car owned by John Masoni, and although he wasn’t one of the fastest cars, he discovered that if he got directly behind another car he would run faster in their air, an idea which became the concept of drafting, a staple of Daytona racing ever since. Johnson used his new strategy to win the race, taking the lead with nine to go when Bobby Johns spun, while Masoni went on to win six races as an owner the next two years before leaving the sport. Johnson, of course, would go on to become an icon, being inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after winning 50 races, and is the winningest driver to have never won a championship, only because he never ran all of the races in an attempt to. One other note about this race is the third place finisher was a very young Richard Petty, for the first of his 11 top fives in the 500, which he won seven times.
5. 1995: Sterling Marlin
In this 500, Sterling Marlin joined Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win back-to-back 500s, after winning it in 1994. That win had been his first Cup Series win, as he became the first driver to win the first both of the first two races of his career in the 500. But that’s not entirely why this race is on this list. After Marlin passed Earnhardt for the lead with 20 to go and a caution five laps later, Earnhardt, who probably had the best car, pitted for tires, taking the gamble of fresh tires over track position. Following the pit stop, Earnhardt was outside the top 10 with 11 to go, but stormed back to the front, looking for his first 500 win. He reached second position with four laps to go, and tried as hard as he could to pass Marlin, but the Tennessean took the checkered flag, once again denying Earnhardt a 500 win.
4. 1963: Tiny Lund
This 500 is on the list because of its storyline. Tiny Lund went to Daytona in 1963 to see if he could find a ride for the 500. Marvin Panch went to Daytona to drive the Wood Brothers #21 Ford in the 500, but first ran a sports car race (what would eventually become today’s Rolex 24). In that race, Panch was involved in a crash, and Lund, who was a friend of Panch and was watching as a spectator, ran to Panch’s burning car and pulled him out, saving his life. Panch was injured though, and Panch asked the Woods if Lund could drive his car in the 500. Lund did, and when Ned Jarrett ran out of gas with three laps to go, Lund took the lead, and went on to win the 500. Lund would go on to win five career Cup Series races, before he was killed in a 1975 crash at Talladega. The Wood Brothers would become one of NASCAR’s most legendary teams, but this was just the sixth win of their then-brief history. They have gone on to win 98 races, including five wins in the 500, including David Pearson’s legendary win in 1976, and Trevor Bayne’s upset in 2011.
3. 2005: Jeff Gordon
Ten years ago a future Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, became just the fifth driver to win three or more Daytona 500s, by winning this thriller. The drivers at the front included Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and defending series champion Kurt Busch. Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, and Gordon changed the lead four times in the final nine laps. This was at the height of the excellent period of restrictor plate racing in the mid-2000s, and many of the best at it were in the running for the win in this race. One underdog at the front was Scott Riggs, who is winless in his Sprint Cup career, but finished fourth in this race. This was the fifth of Hendrick Motorsports’ eight 500 wins, and is the most recent win for Gordon, who will today try to match Earnhardt Jr. for the longest time in between 500 wins with a win ten years later.
2. 1984: Cale Yarborough
This 500 should be considered one of the all-time best. Yarborough had become the first pole sitter for the 500 to break the 200 mph barrier, and he also won his qualifying race, so when he won the 500 he joined Fireball Roberts in 1962 as the second driver to win all three in one speedweeks (the only to do all three since is Bill Elliott in 1985). There were 34 lead changes in this 500, with the best coming on the final lap. Yarborough passed Darrell Waltrip, who was at the time still looking for his first 500 win, on the backstretch with his “slingshot” maneuver after Waltrip had led the previous 38 laps. The move had won him multiple races at Daytona, including the previous year’s 500 with a pass of Buddy Baker. Hall of Famers took the top three in this race, as Dale Earnhardt got around Waltrip for the second spot, and Waltrip finished third. Yarborough became the second back-to-back winner of the 500, and gave Ranier-Lundy (which later became Robert Yates Racing and won two more 500s) their third win in five years at Daytona.
1. 2002: Ward Burton
Although this race isn’t talked about very much today, the entire final hour of this 500 was extremely dramatic, and had multiple key moments, making this the most underrated 500 ever. After pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had early problems, “the big one” on lap 149 took out 18 more cars. Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kurt Busch with 24 to go, and led until a restart with six to go. A chain reaction of cars not getting up to speed quickly caused a crash in the middle of the pack, and when the caution came out, Sterling Marlin went underneath Gordon to try to take the lead while racing back to the caution flag (they did this back then). Gordon tried to block, and was spun across the front of Marlin’s car. Marlin and Ward Burton raced back around, with Marlin beating Burton by a nose. While driving around, Marlin clearly had a fender rub from the contact with Gordon, and after the race was red-flagged to ensure a green-flag finish. Marlin got out of his car and pulled the fender off the tire, illegally working on his car under the red flag, later joking in his Tennessee drawl, “I saw Earnhardt do that one time, so I thought it was alright.” (The instance he is referring to happened under the yellow, not the red flag.) What then played out on the broadcast during the red flag was a long discussion over the penalty for working on the car under the red flag, as well as the potential of a yellow line violation when Marlin went below Gordon (drivers can’t advance their position below the yellow line that separates the track and the apron). Marlin was sent to the rear for the red flag violation, giving Burton the lead for the first time all day. He led the final five laps, his only five laps led, to win the 500, one of five career Cup Series wins for Burton, whose son Jeb fell just short of qualifying for this year’s 500 this week. It was also one of five race victories for owner Bill Davis, and the first 500 win for Dodge since 1974 (although they were out of the sport for many years). Marlin finished eighth, and Gordon finished ninth, after both had lost an excellent shot to win the 500. This race had it all, and Michael Waltrip, who was involved in the crash with six to go, said afterward “I’ll just tell people I spun out at Daytona with five to go, and ran fifth, and that’s all the description it needs,” and broadcaster Allen Bestwick said “We have seen our share of twists and turns over the years in the Daytona 500 but this one may top them all.” While, other than Gordon, the drivers involved didn’t necessarily have the most success, and weren’t the most popular, the drama which unfolded in this 500 was, in some ways, unmatched, and the winner was a well liked driver like Burton, so I don’t know why this isn’t remembered among the greatest of all Daytona 500s.
Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3: Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4: Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6: Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7: Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8: Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9: Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10: Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11: Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12: Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13: J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14: Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15: Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16: Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17: Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18: Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19: Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20: Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21: Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22: Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify: Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch
^substituting for Kurt Busch