The Daytona 500 is a 200-lap, 500 mile race held annually at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. The race is a restrictor plate race, meaning that a device is installed in the intake of the automobile's engine, restriciting top performance to ensure fair competition and safety. Many regard the Daytona 500 as the most prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar, as it carries the largest purse. Championship points, however, are awarded equal to that of any other Sprint Cup Race. The race is known as the "Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing" and the "Great American Race."
The Daytona 500 is the direct successor of shorter races that took place in the Daytona Beach area several years before the inaugural. Races took place on the beach alongside the highway, and early drivers used windshield wipers and radiators to combat the sand. Since the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, the race has been held at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach. By 1961, the race was known by its moniker - the "Daytona 500."
The very first Daytona 500 was won by Lee Petty, racing patriarch and legend. Perry defeated Johnny Beauchamp in an unusual manner - after the race was over, Beauchamp was initially awarded the win, but the call was reversed after several days of poring over the finish line photographs. Perry was declared the victor three days later.
The 1970's saw many new horizons for the Daytona 500 race. Richard Petty captured the 1973 and 1974 Daytona 500 wins, making him the first ever driver to capture two consecutive Daytona 500 victories. In 1976, a battle to the finish between David Pearson and Richard Petty marked one of the most exciting victories in Daytona 500 history. Petty, who was leading up to the last lap, was passed by Pearson. As Petty tried to pass him from beneath, Petty struck Pearson's car and both drivers spun out into the infield grass. Petty could not get his car to start while Pearson could, so Pearson ended the race with his car limping over the finish line. In 1979, the Daytona 500 was first televised on national television, marking the full recognition of the race as national sport.
In 1981, Petty won his 7th Daytona 500, becoming the first driver to win the Daytona 500 in three distinct decades. During the 1908's, the Daytona 500 saw a dramatic increase of top speeds. In 1980, Buddy Baker won the 500 at the fastest speed in race history - 177.602 mph. In 1987, Bill Elliot qualified for the pole position at a record speed of 210.364 mph, which led to the implementation of restrictor plates. Restrictor plates regulate the amount of air that reaches the engine to limit the top speeds of cars. The call for restrictor plates was prompted by the increasing speeds at the race.
The 1990's saw some tremendous races, especially with contender Dale Earnhardt looking for his first Daytona win. In 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1996, Dale Earnhardt was so close to the finish that he could taste victory, but he could not pull it off. Finally, in 1998, Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 after 20 years of trying. In 2001, in a tragic turn of events, Dale Earnhardt perished in a crash in the last lap of the race. Dale's son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., would win the 2004 Daytona 500 three years later.
In 2005, the start time of the race was altered to make it so that the final leg of the race was completed in the night, under the lights. Again in 2007, the start time was moved up again to make sure that the race ended at night.