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10 of the most underrated Daytona 500 races


In the 61 previous runnings of the Daytona 500, we’ve been able to experience just about everything. When one thinks of a notable moment in NASCAR history, it usually took place in the Daytona 500.

Many sites will reveal their top-10 Daytona 500s, but I wanted to do something different. Every top-10 Daytona 500 list has the usual suspects (usually 1959, ’63, ’76, ’79, ’88, ’89, ’93, ’98, 2004, and ’07) and the only difference people have is the order. What this is, is 10 Daytona 500 races (listed in chronological order) that were great, but for one reason or another aren’t as remembered throughout history as some of the better known editions. They may not be races fans go out of their way to check out, but these 10 are well worth your time on YouTube.

One thing I should note is that I intentionally left off the more modern races because those races are likely still in most people’s memory. Ward Burton’s upset win/Sterling Marlin’s on-track repair in 2002, the marathon race in 2012 where Juan Pablo Montoya caused a jet dryer to explode, and Kurt Busch’s 2017 win where everyone seemed to run out of fuel are all contenders as underrated races, but let’s give it a few more years.

1967 – Won by Mario Andretti

Many fans are aware that Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 in 1967. In fact, Andretti is one of two people to win the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 (A.J. Foyt is the other), and Andretti is the only one to win those races and the Formula One World Championship. But what fans may not know is how Andretti won the Daytona 500.

Andretti was driving for Holman-Moody and was essentially a second driver for Fred Lorenzen. Lorenzen was the NASCAR star and the guy running for a championship, so it would make sense that he got the bulk of the resources in order to win. Andretti, relying on his open wheel expertise, drove his car way looser than the rest of the field. And if you’re able to hang on to the car, loose means fast.

So after he drove 500 clean miles, the open wheel driver Andretti took the checkered flag over his NASCAR teammate Lorenzen. While that was Andretti’s only NASCAR win in 14 career races, it showed that Andretti had the skill to get in any type of car and win.

1969 – Won by LeeRoy Yarbrough

The first Daytona 500 consisted of a photo finish between Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, and lapped car Joe Weatherly that took three days to decide the winner. Petty wound up winning, and that finish would be the start of some legendary finishes at Daytona.

A race ending with a last lap pass was more the exception than the norm in the 60s. In the years between the first Daytona 500 and this 1969 race, only the 1968 race ended in a close finish, but no race consisted of a last lap pass.

That all changed in 1969. For the ten-year anniversary of the first race, fans were treated with a great finish with a last lap pass. Dodge driver Charlie Glotzbach had the lead in the closing stages, but Ford driver LeeRoy Yarbrough was chipping into Glotzbach’s lead. On the final lap, Yarbrough got past Glotzbach on the backstretch and won his only Daytona 500 win. The ’69 season proved special for Yarbrough; he became the first to win NASCAR’s “Triple Crown” that consisted of the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500.

1970 – Won by Pete Hamilton

There’s a reason so many of these races from the 60s and 70s are on this list, because this was an era where manufacturers were pumping in lots of money in their NASCAR programs. Ford went against Ferrari at Le Mans in the 60s, but a similar battle took place during this time between Ford/Mercury and Dodge/Plymouth. Chevrolet was there too, but they were pretty far behind.

NASCAR manufacturers in the 60s believed in the motto “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” and that was the truth. While there were a few alterations made to these race cars, the cars back in the 60s were the same as what you could buy for the street. And to prove that, NASCAR made manufacturers produce at least 500 of these cars if they wanted to race that in NASCAR. My father has a 1969 Dan Gurney Special Mercury Cyclone, the same car that was raced and won in this era.

In the 1970 race, it was a head-t0-head battle between Pete Hamilton in a Plymouth Superbird and David Pearson in a Ford Torino. The exotic looking Superbird/Daytona had the enlarged wing on the back and it was certainly a looker. NASCAR only let Plymouth/Dodge race those cars for the 1970 season (with the exception of Dick Brooks driving a car in the 1971 ‘500 with a small block engine), so its short-lived time in NASCAR makes it a gem among car collectors.

Hamilton would utilize his wing to grab the win over Pearson, earning his first career Cup win. Aligning himself with Petty Enterprises, Hamilton was a superspeedway star. He won four career races, all at either Daytona or Talladega in 1970 or ’71.

1971 – Won by Richard Petty

When you win seven Daytona 500s, chances are you’re going to have at least one of your wins on this list. While he got a good chunk of wins in the 60s, including his greatest single season in 1967, Richard Petty really entered his prime in the 70s. Petty won more races in the 60s, but he won a higher percentage of races in the 70s (27.3 percent) as NASCAR shortened the schedule in 1972.

This was the beginning of the end of the Winged Warrior era; rules were put in place to make for closer racing. With the implementation of restrictor plates and small block engines, speeds were cut but the cars were closer. Throughout this race, more than seven drivers were swapping the lead and remained in the lead pack, something that rarely happened with so many cars back then.

While the late stages of the race was dominated by Petty, this was still a fun race with a variety of leaders and lots of action. It was a preview of what was to come as NASCAR became more hands-on in incorporating rules in the name of creating a better show for the fans.

1974 – Won by Richard Petty

Despite only racing 450 miles due to the energy crisis, the 1974 Daytona 500 held the record for most lead changes (59) until the 2011 version (74).

This race consisted of a duel between Petty and Donnie Allison, one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR history. Other than Coo Coo Marlin leading for a single lap, the final 82 laps of the race were shared by Petty and Allison; they swapped the lead 17 times in that stretch.

Don’t let the 47 second margin of victory fool you, this was a race that came down to the wire. Tires dictated the result as Petty needed to pit in the closing stages. Allison had a lead of about half a lap over Petty and was cruising to victory, but a blown tire with about 10 laps to go handed the lead back to Petty, and The King became the first to win back-to-back Daytona 500s. This is the second out of three times that Allison fell out of the lead in the Daytona 500 under unforeseen circumstances allowing Petty to win. The first was in 1971, when Allison’s brakes locked up with 30 to go and the third was the classic 1979 finish. Strange to think that if just a few things went differently, Donnie Allison would be a three-time Daytona 500 winner (and lose out on the moment that defined the sport), and Richard Petty would’ve only won the race four times.

1981 – Won by Richard Petty

Despite being dominant in most of his wins seven Daytona 500 wins, Petty had a flair for the dramatics. For this 1981 victory, Petty wasn’t winning as often as he used to, and as they raced with the “downsized” third generation car exclusively for the first time, the overwhelming favorite at Speedweeks was Bobby Allison.

Petty was up near the front throughout the race, but needed something to overtake Allison. Crew chief and cousin, Dale Inman, had a trick up his sleeve and chose not to change tires on the final stop. By adding just one can of gas, Petty got himself a big lead, but he was tight on fuel.

As Petty’s Buick was coughing for fuel and straining to get to the finish line in time, he grabbed his final Daytona 500 win. Everyone remembers Petty’s 1979 win and for good reason, but there were a few other wins of his that was also exciting.

1983 – Won by Cale Yarborough

The first of Cale’s back-to-back Daytona 500 victories, Yarborough had an eventful start to Speedweeks. In trying to eclipse the 200 mph barrier in qualifying, Yarborough reached that mark on Lap 1. But on Lap 2, the wind caught Yarborough’s car and whipped it through the air.

Yarborough had been racing a Chevrolet, but with no backup and no time to spare before the qualifying race, Ranier Racing brought in a Pontiac that was acting as a show car at a local Hardee’s to start in the race.

This was at the height of unrestricted slingshot passing. The cars were racing at well over 200 mph and were regularly passing each other. This race had 58 lead changes, just one short of the then record. It remains the third most lead changes in a Daytona 500. Yarborough signature move at Daytona was the slingshot pass on the backstretch on the final lap. That failed to work in 1979, but Yarborough capitalized in 1983 and passed Buddy Baker for his third ‘500 win. He would win in the same fashion the next year to become the second to win back-to-back Daytona 500s.

1986 – Won by Geoff Bodine

I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I love a good fuel mileage race. I love the fearlessness of a crew chief making the decision that they’re going to do something different than the rest of the field. And I love the drama that ensues as the leading driver incorporates their skill to stretch the fuel as much as they can, as everyone waits to see if that car can reach the checkered flag.

In 1986, Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt were attempting to roll the dice on fuel. It’s not like the usual fuel mileage race where someone from far back was trying to outwit the leaders, Bodine and Earnhardt led the most laps. But as they headed toward the checkered flag, Earnhardt went to the pits with a few laps to go and calamity ensued, creating what was arguably the first chapter in his string of bad luck in the Daytona 500.

1994 – Won by Sterling Marlin

Morgan-McClure Racing has a rather specific place in history. A small team that competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for 25 years, they had their greatest success in the 90s, tallying 14 wins. Nine of those 14 wins were at either Daytona or Talladega.

After winning the Daytona 500 in 1991, the #4 went for it again in 1994 with a then winless Sterling Marlin. Fighting an 0-for-278 streak, not many counted on Marlin to win. He not only got the win in 1994, but he also won in 1995, carrying the distinction of winning his first two races in the Daytona 500 and becoming the third driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s. Marlin also won his back-to-back winning them in two different cars. In 1994, Chevrolet had the Lumina and in 1995, the Monte Carlo. Marlin’s attempt at a three-peat was derailed due to engine problems.

And speaking of 1996…

1996 – Won by Dale Jarrett

Most sequels aren’t as good as the original, and the second “Dale and Dale Show” wasn’t as good as the 1993 version, but this was still pretty good. In a new team for Robert Yates, Dale Jarrett was dominant at Speedweeks in 1996. He won the Busch Clash and was strong all week. But what made this race fun was how the race unfolded.

In total, 15 different drivers took a turn in the lead, and one by one, one of the favorites dropped out of contention. First, it was Jeff Gordon who slapped the wall in the opening laps. Then it was Ernie Irvan who unfortunately was behind a temporary slowing Dale Earnhardt, and he tagged the wall. After that, Sterling Marlin, who was attempting to become the first to win three consecutive Daytona 500 victories, blew the engine and ended his three-peat hopes.

In the end, it would be a showdown between Jarrett and Earnhardt, who recovered from his earlier ignition troubles. Three years before, Jarrett got the better of Earnhardt as he passed him coming to the final lap. This time, Jarrett was holding them off as his father Ned called him to the checkered flag. It isn’t remembered as often as the 1993 race, but it was still a special moment in the history of the Daytona 500.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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