When NASCAR founder Big Bill France realized his long-held dream of opening Daytona International Speedway in 1959, reaction was immediate.
At a time when most tracks were dirt and half a mile or less in length, the notion of a 2.5-mile, billiard-smooth track banked at 31 degrees was unthinkable to most racers. Speeds were up near 150 miles per hour and it took courage and balls to get around the track at speed.
"There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys," said modified driver Jimmy Thompson after lapping Daytona for the first time. "This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone."
Over the years, Daytona has seen its share of upsets, surprises, fantastic finishes and great racing. It’s also been a place where drivers have built their careers and become legends. Here are 10 of Daytona’s best.
10. DALE JARRETT – One of the most famous Daytona 500 finishes of all time came in 1993, when Jarrett won the first of his three 500s by holding off Dale Earnhardt as father Ned Jarrett called the race on live television. The "Dale and Dale show" made for high drama and gave Joe Gibbs Racing its first – and so far, only – 500 victory.
9. BILL ELLIOTT – A two-time Daytona 500 winner, Elliott was victorious here in 1985 and ’87 in the 500 and captured the July Daytona race in 1988 and ’91. "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" was always at his best at fast tracks, as witnessed by his four poles, nine top fives and 14 top 10s in the 500. In 1987, Elliott set the track qualifying record at Daytona, with a lap of 210.364 miles per hour.
8. TONY STEWART – Despite never winning the Daytona 500, the three-time champion has a tremendous record here, scoring 19 race victories at this track, including four Coke Zero 400s and seven NASCAR Nationwide Series races. That’s second only to the late, great Dale Earnhardt. Stewart will certainly be one of the favorites again on Saturday night, as he is the defending race winner.
7. DAVID PEARSON – At or near the top of the list for best Daytona 500s ever was the 1976 race, when Pearson and Richard Petty crashed on the last lap, with Pearson’s heavily damaged Wood Brothers Mercury limping to the finish line to win. Surprisingly, perhaps, that was Pearson’s only Daytona 500 victory, although he did post six top-five finishes. All told, though, Pearson was credited with seven other Sprint Cup victories at Daytona.
6. JEFF GORDON – The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has three victories each in the Daytona 500 and the July Daytona race. In 1997, just days after it was announced that team owner Rick Hendrick was suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia, Gordon famously led a 1-2-3 sweep of the Daytona 500 ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.
5. BOBBY ALLISON - Another old-school, bare-knuckled racer, Allison won three Daytona 500s – 1978, ’82 and ‘88 - and three July Daytona races in 1980, ‘82 and ‘87. Allison’s final victory at Daytona, the 1988 Daytona 500, was the most poignant, as Allison took the checkered flag with son Davey in second place. Bobby’s driving career would end later that year after a near-fatal crash at Pocono Raceway. To this day, Bobby has no memory of the 1-2 finish with his late son.
4. FIREBALL ROBERTS – Known as NASCAR’s first superstar, Roberts made just 17 starts at Daytona before his tragic death in 1964 after a fiery crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Roberts made the most of those 17 starts, winning seven races, a fairly remarkable performance. In 1962, Roberts won his Daytona 500 qualifying race, the Daytona 500 and the July Daytona Cup race, then known as the Firecracker 250.
3. CALE YARBOROUGH - In his day, no one approached Yarborough for toughness, and his nine Sprint Cup point victories trail only the 10 won by Richard Petty. The gritty South Carolina racer won his first Daytona 500 driving for the Wood Brothers in 1968 and then won for car owner Junior Johnson in 1977. He scored back-to-back victories for Harry Ranier in 1983 and ‘84, making him one of only three drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s. And the race he didn’t win in 1979, when he and Bobby Allison brawled on national television, is the stuff of legends.
2. DALE EARNHARDT - That Earnhardt won just one Daytona 500, yet is ranked this high speaks volumes about "The Intimidator’s" body of work on NASCAR’s biggest stage. Earnhardt won a total of 34 races at Daytona more than any other driver. That’s counting NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide points races, Gatorade Duels, Sprint Unlimited events and IROC races. In the Daytona 500, Earnhardt had a whole series of near misses - most notably a flat tire on the final lap in 1990 – before sealing the deal with a hugely emotional Daytona 500 victory in 1998.
1. RICHARD PETTY - One statistic sets the man everyone knows as "The King" apart from every other driver: seven Daytona 500 victories, a gold standard no one else ever approached. In addition, Petty won the July race three times. Petty was a central player in two of the most famous 500s ever: In 1976, he and David Pearson crashed on the last lap, with Pearson winning, and three years later, Petty won when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked each other on the last lap going for the victory. In has career at Daytona, Petty had 28 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes at Daytona, both records.
Click here for a photo gallery of the ten best Daytona racers of all time.