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The Daytona 500--A Unique Racing Experience

Updated on February 16, 2015

The Super Bowl of Stock Cars

The Super Bowl has ended, taking the NFL season with it. Baseball season does not start for another couple of months. College basketball is in full-swing, but March Madness is still a few weeks away. There are no major tournaments in golf or tennis for a couple of months, either. The NBA and NHL seasons don't really matter. The real entertainment starts in the playoffs. What is a sports fan to do.

One option is NASCAR's Daytona 500, held every February at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida. The 2012 edition is a bit later than most previous years and will not be held until February 26. The main difference between NASCAR and other sports is the fact that their major event is at the very beginning of the season, rather than the end. Some people will argue that the newfangled "Chase for the Championship" is the main event, but purists who have been watching the sport for many years might beg to differ.

The Daytona 500 is the most difficult race to get into for drivers. Only the first 2 spots are determined by qualifying speeds. Most of the final starting grid gets determined on Thursday through the Gatorade Duels--two 150-mile races in which half of the field attempts to cement their spot in the race. The Duels set 28 spots. The rest are filled by the quickest qualifiers not already in the field and a handful of provisional spots for the top teams from the previous year. Most races have around 45 cars show up to attempt to qualify for the 43 spots in the field. The Daytona 500 will often have around 60 cars make a qualifying run. At times, drivers in part-time rides can make the race. Rarely, they can even have a really good run. These unique qualifying rules and the sheer number of cars that attempt to make the race can leave some of the leading drivers outside the track on race day.

The Daytona 500 is also unique in that it is one of only two tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit that require the use of restrictor plates that cut down on horsepower. The plates have been expanded this year to get some speed back. Without the plates, the cars would run well over 200 mph. In 1999, I went to the race, and Tony Stewart sat on the pole in his first race with a qualifying speed of over 199 mph. The next year saw changes that dropped speeds well below 190. Changes to the car last year led to two-car teams, which was a big difference from the 40-car packs that were quite common in previous years.

The track itself is a huge 2.5-mile tri-oval that has a dogleg on the front straightaway. The banking at the speedway is 31 degrees in the corners, which, combined with the restrictor plates, contributes to drivers flooring their accelerators throughout the race. Late race passes for the win are the rule, rather than the exception. The very first Daytona 500 saw a photo finish with Lee Petty edging out the win. One of the more famous 500s occurred in 1979. On the weekend of the race, which was televised live for the first time, a snowstorm locked much of the East Coast into their homes. The viewers were treated to a last-lap crash and fight between the leaders, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, while Richard Petty came from way back to win.

I had the opportunity to snag some last-minute tickets in 1999, and almost saw my favorite driver win. Jeff Gordon passed Rusty Wallace in the final 10 laps to win. I was totally bummed, but it was a cool opportunity to see one of the most unique races in NASCAR. I sat on the Superstretch (backstretch), and much of the frontstretch was obscured by the garage and campers. The vast size of the track makes viewing in person difficult, but the race should still be on every race fan's bucket list. Who will win this year? Will it be a series champion like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, or Tony Stewart? Or, will it be a little-known driver like Derricke Cope or Trevor Bayne? Going into the race, it's hard to tell because there is always the threat of "The Big One," especially at the end of the race.

Where will you be on the day of the Daytona 500? I plan to be in the living room watching the race. Hopefully, it's better than 2000s Snore at the Shore. Regardless, there are lots worse things to do.

2015 Update:

In 2015, NASCAR decided to start using a knockout method for qualifying in which drivers run around the track together and try to run a fast lap. This was quite controversial, but Jeff Gordon won the pole for the first race in what is expected to be his last season of full-time driving on the circuit.

Winners of the Daytona 500:

1959 Lee Petty

1960 Junior Johnson

1961 Marvin Panch

1962 Fireball Roberts

1963 Tiny Lund

1964 Richard Petty

1965 Fred Lorenzen

1966 Richard Petty

1967 Mario Andretti

1968 Cale Yarborough

1969 LeeRoy Yarbrough

1970 Pete Hamilton

1971 Richard Petty

1972 AJ Foyt

1973 Richard Petty

1974 Richard Petty

1975 Benny Parsons

1976 David Pearson

1977 Cale Yarborough

1978 Bobby Allison

1979 Richard Petty

1980 Buddy Baker

1981 Richard Petty

1982 Bobby Allison

1983 Cale Yarborough

1984 Cale Yarborough

1985 Bill Elliott

1986 Geoffrey Bodine

1987 Bill Elliott

1988 Bobby Allison

1989 Darrell Waltrip

1990 Derrike Cope

1991 Ernie Irvan

1992 Davey Allison

1993 Dale Jarrett

1995 Sterling Marlin

1996 Sterling Marlin

1997 Dale Jarrett

1998 Jeff Gordon

1998 Dale Earnhardt

1999 Jeff Gordon

2000 Dale Jarrett

2001 Michael Waltrip

2002 Ward Burton

2003 Michael Waltrip

2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2005 Jeff Gordon

2006 Jimmie Johnson

2007 Kevin Harvick

2008 Ryan Newman

2009 Matt Kenseth

2010 Jamie McMurray

2011 Trevor Bayne

2012 Matt Kenseth


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