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The Great American Race

The phenomenon known as Speedweeks has come to an end for 2009 with the running of the 51st Daytona 500. The week began with a lot of excitement and some apprehension. Many changes had occurred over the off season, from team mergers, to new owner/driver enterprises. There was a feeling of anticipation in the air. Would the gambles pay off? Would the changes made see NASCAR through the economic storms that plagued our country? These questions certainly wouldn’t be answered in a week. But the drivers and crews were ready to race. Ready to see if their hard work would pay off. NASCAR was changing.

We all know the old saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.“ One thing that wouldn’t change was the Daytona 500. This race has long been termed the “Super Bowl” or the “World Series” of stock car racing. NASCAR is unique in that it holds it’s most prestigious race at the very beginning of the season instead of the end, as most sports do. “The Great American Race”, 200 laps, 500 miles. A grueling race for the drivers. The race of races. If you won the Daytona 500 you would go down in NASCAR.

The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 at the Daytona International Speedway. Lee Petty, patriarch of Petty Enterprises was declared the winner after photographs and film were observed for over three days. It was definitely a photo finish.Since 1959 there have been many unforgettable races at Daytona and here are a few highlights.

In 1979 the Daytona 500 became the first 500 mile race to be broadcast in it’s entirety. It aired on CBS and had a captive audience due to a blizzard on the East Coast. Richard Petty won the race, but that wasn’t the big story. The fight between Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough went down in history that day.

1988 Daytona 500 was the first race that required the use of restrictor plates. Restrictor plates were mandated because NASCAR felt that the speeds were getting too high at the super speedways. This happened after a horrific crash in Talladega in 1987 in which Bobby Allison’s car nearly cleared the fence and could have killed thousands of people. Richard Petty was also involved in a huge crash during this race but was not seriously injured.

The 1998 Daytona 500 will be remembered as the year the Intimidator finally conquered the “Great American Race”. It Dale Earnhardt’s 19th try. He had had several opportunities in the past but was thwarted by unusual circumstances from running out of gas to hitting a seagull. But in 1998 he had luck on his side when a sick child gave him a lucky penny which he glued to the dashboard of his race car. He won the race and the vision of very single driver and crew member lined up to congratulate him will live on in the memory of NASCAR fans forever.

The 2001 Daytona 500 was a great tragedy in the sport. Dale Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the last lap within 15 seconds of the end of the race. His death was mourned by millions of fans throughout the world. It was not long after his death that NASCAR mandated the use of head restraints to protect against head trauma. But, fans of the sport will always remember this race as the passing of a legend.

The 50th Daytona 500 was held in 2008 with lots of pomp and splendor. Daytona’s golden anniversary was the first 500 ran at Daytona with the Car Of Tomorrow. It was also the first race under the “Sprint Cup” banner. The pace car was driven by 1960 Daytona winner, Junior Johnson. The green flag was waved by 7 time Daytona 500 winner, Richard Petty and no less than 24 past champions gave the call to “Start Your Engines!” Ryan Newman came away with the win and over 1.5 million dollars, with the last place finisher taking home a quarter of a million.

A lot of things may have changed in NASCAR this year, but the Daytona 500 just isn’t one of them.

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