Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 21-25

25. 2003 Daytona 500

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

The 2003 Daytona 500 may go down as one of the strangest Daytona 500s ever. This was during the period of DEI dominance at the restrictor plates, and the 2003 Daytona 500 was no exception. Just the previous Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip had started, and finished, first and second in their Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier. And on an overcast Sunday at the beach, it appeared a similar story was being written.

Earnhardt however would suffer from electrical problems and would fall multiple laps in arrears, effectively taking him out of contention for his first Daytona 500 victory. Waltrip however was still around, and it appeared his stiffest competition would be from either Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson. While Earnhardt may have no longer been in contention for the victory himself, he still was in position however to play a huge role in deciding just who would go to victory lane.

A caution flew on lap 96, and following the pit stops by the leaders, Jimmie Johnson emerged as the leader for the first time. Waltrip (64) and Earnhardt (22) had led 86 of the first 95 laps of the event and it would appear to only be a matter of time before Waltrip would make his way back to the front. Earnhardt was at this point still battling to make up the multiple laps he’d lost while suffering through his ailments earlier in the day. Time, however, was not on anyone’s side this day. Well, perhaps it was on one man’s side.

The race restarted and only three green flag laps were run, as another caution flew, this one for debris. Johnson still maintained the lead, but lining up to his inside on the restart would be the car of Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was two laps down. This was before the days of the double file restart with only lead-lap cars, and wave arounds, and lucky dogs. This was when the lead lap cars restarted on the outside, and the cars one or more laps in arrears restarted on the bottom. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. It made all the difference in the world on this day.

Immediately after the green dropped on lap 106 Waltrip dropped from his spot on Johnson’s bumper to the bottom line behind teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt raced past Johnson to bring himself back to just one lap down, but more importantly, he pulled Waltrip with him. Everyone knew that the two DEI cars hooked up together were next to unbeatable. So the circumstances surrounding what turned out to be the final restart did not at all make Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus very happy.

While the leaders were coming off of turn four, defending Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton crashed, bringing out the race’s third caution in the last twelve laps. It would be the final caution. The skies completely opened up while the field was pacing around the track, and it did not take long for NASCAR to call the race after just 109 laps, or 272.5 miles.

The irony in it all was that once again, Waltrip was denied a true victory lane celebration of a Daytona 500 victory. Amazing, for a man who won two Daytona 500s (though many hesitate to say that, considering this one wasn’t even the distance of the Nationwide race that precedes it on Saturday), he’s yet to truly experience victory lane in The Great American Race.

Kurt Busch would wind up second, and it would not be the last time he would be the bridesmaid while Johnson took third. Earnhardt would never get the chance to make up his other lost lap, but of course, if you’ve been reading you know, he would take the checkered flag the very next February.

The race itself saw just 11 lead changes during its 109 laps, and only Waltrips pass of Johnson on the restart took place under green. Coupled with the weather, and the shortened distance, there really wasn’t much to enjoy about this Daytona 500. Ryan Newman’s accident, and the sublots of Waltrip winning another Daytona 500 that seemed to be marred and overshadowed by a bigger story are the only things that made this race remotely memorable.

24. 1985 Daytona 500

A portrait of dominance

A portrait of dominance

When it comes down to it, there may not have been a less competitive Daytona 500 in the past 30 years than the 1985 edition. And it’s for that reason, actually, that it doesn’t rank as the least enjoyable of the past thirty years.

The 1985 Daytona 500 should in fact be appreciated for what it was. And what it was was a domination of unheard of proportions, and of proportions that will never be seen again at the famed 2.5 mile track. What Bill Elliott managed to do to the field at Daytona in the February of 1985 bordered on criminal.

Elliott had already won the pole with a track record lap that bettered 205 mph, and was over a full mph faster than outside pole sitter Cale Yarborough. On Thursday, Elliott went out and proceeded to absolutely crush what fleeting hope anyone had of catching the red Ford by leading all 50 laps of his Twin 125 Qualifier…..and lapping all but five cars. That’s right, in a 50 lap sprint at Daytona, Elliott left a mere five cars on the lead lap and won by 37 seconds. Yes, 37 seconds. If Elliott didn’t break, nobody had a chance on Sunday.

And as it would happen, Elliott did not break. But just about everybody else did in their attempts, futile at that, to try and keep up the pace. By days end, only 18 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, and only Lake Speed finished on the same lap as Elliott. The list of names who succumbed to Elliott’s prowess was long and distinguished. Nobody had anything for the youngster from Georgia, and anyone who tried to keep the pace found themselves in the garage.

At one point in the race Elliott built up a 44 second lead. Again, you’re reading this right, a 44 second lead. Apparently NASCAR didn’t like the way Elliott was stinking up their show however and had him come to pit road to repair a hole over the headlight cover. Elliott made his stop, lost the lead as the crew made the repairs, rejoined the fray and he was back in the lead again in 10 laps.

The 1985 Daytona 500 was not particularly enjoyable to watch, and it certainly was not competitive as Elliott led for 136 laps. However, what it was, was something we won’t ever witness again. What it was was a case of man and machine completely dominating every other combination of man and machine to levels that were just unfathomable. People talk about how dominant the Morgan-McClure car was at the plate tracks for a stretch in the mid 90s, or the DEI dominance of the early 2000s, or even of Jimmie Johnson’s success at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. None of those compare to how dominant Bill Elliott was at Daytona during Speed Weeks in 1985. Never since has one man been such a heavy favorite entering a NASCAR race, and for good reason. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen.

23. 2012 Daytona 500

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

The most recent edition of the Daytona 500 is remembered much more for things that happened while the green flag was NOT out, than what took place at speed on the racetrack.

For starters, for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday. The race had been shortened in the past, and it had been delayed. But it had never been postponed. As they say, there’s a first time for everything. Not that FOX, or NASCAR really seemed to mind. With inclement weather still lingering around on Monday, NASCAR was able to get a prime time Monday night showcase slot for it’s premier event, which so happened to also be the debut of one, Danica Patrick.

The race itself, to long-time NASCAR fans, wasn’t exactly a lot to write home about. The two Jack Roush cars of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were clearly the class of the field, with seemingly the only driver with any possibility of besting the two blue ovals being Denny Hamlin. A first lap crash had already taken out Jimmie Johnson, as well as Danica Patrick. Hamlin seemed early on to be the class of the field, but anyone who’d seen the Roush cars all week long knew how stout they were. And in the second half of the race the two flexed their muscle.

The end was fairly anti-climatic. Kenseth led the final 38 laps, an unheard of number in today’s day and age of plate racing, and was never seriously challenged at the end. Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to get around Kenseth’s teammate Greg Biffle for 2nd, but Earnhardt had no chance of passing Kenseth without any drafting help, and obviously, Biffle wasn’t going to be helping a Chevrolet beat his teammate.

However, it almost came to be that Kenseth never got to lead those last 38 laps. And had that stayed true, this Daytona 500 would have gone down as one of the most memorable ever.

NASCAR has a way of having big moments happen when the national television spotlight is brightest. In 1979 when they televised the race flag to flag live for the first time, there was the fight. In 2001, when FOX televised its first race, there was Dale Earnhardt’s death. And, then in 2012 when NASCAR got its first Monday Night race, there was Juan Pablo Montoya and the jet-dryer. Darrell Waltrip likes to say in the booth, “have you ever?” The answer in this case, from anyone who saw this, was, “No”.

Montoya’s escapade into the jet dryer left jet fuel spilling all over the race track in turn three, and the possibility of damage to the track’s surface made it very possible the race would not be restarted. Had that happened, Dave Blaney would be your defending Daytona 500 champion.

Of course, after a lengthy clean-up, and lots of Tide, and Brad Keselowski tweeting pictures from inside his car, the race did re-start. So, as it stands, the Montoya/jet-dryer explosion makes this race memorable. But had it allowed Dave Blaney to be a Daytona 500 winner, it would have been one of the most memorable of all-time.

22. 2006 Daytona 500

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

It wasn’t that the 2006 Daytona 500 wasn’t competitive, there were 32 lead changes among 18 different drivers. It was just that it was…….well, what was it? And there in lies the problem. There is no identity to this edition of the Daytona 500, nothing memorable to stand out. Well, I guess you could count Tony Stewart body slamming Matt Kenseth into the grass down the backstretch, only days after Stewart himself claimed, “We’re going to kill somebody driving like this”. But aside from that?

Perhaps it’s more memorable for Ryan Newman, Dodge, and Chip Ganassi. It was on this night that they realized Casey Mears would opt to help someone from his home state win, and driving a rival team’s car, in a rival manufacturer, as opposed to helping a fellow Dodge. Newman made a move on race leader Jimmie Johnson on the back stretch of the final lap, expecting help from a fellow Dodge lined up behind him. Instead, the Dodge driver decided his allegiances to California were deeper than those to the manufacturer of his race cars, and he Mears stuck with Johnson, handing Johnson the win.

For Johnson it was particularly sweet, as early during Speed Weeks NASCAR had kindly, or maybe not so kindly, escorted Chad Knaus out of the race track, and told him he was not welcome back to the track for six weeks after they found some creative workings of his on the race car to be a little too blatant a smudging of the rules. Interesting enough, the man filling in on the top of the pit box for Knaus was none other than Darian Grubb, he off the 2012 Sprint Cup championship with Tony Stewart.

I feel like there should be more to say here, but, really, there just isn’t. The race was competitive, so it wasn’t boring, and there was drama at the conclusion. There was just something missing…….

21. 1986 Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

The 1986 Daytona 500, despite NASCAR’s efforts to slow down the Fords, particularly one built in a tiny shop in Dawsonville, Ga, seemed very similar to its predecessor. Bill Elliott was on the pole, qualifying at over 205 mph….again.

But Elliott’s ’86 Ford wasn’t as dominant as his 1985 model had been. Partly due to NASCAR rules aimed to slow him down, and partly due to the diligence and work of the other teams in the garage, particularly the Chevrolets owned by Richard Childress and upstart owner Rick Hendrick.

Childress and his driver Dale Earnhardt had already established a bit of a rivalry with Rick Hendrick and Geoff Bodine. On track skirmishes were frequent between the two, and even after this Daytona 500, would remain so. So much so, the feud between Rowdy Burns and Cole Trickle, and the meeting with NASCAR at the hospital was modeled after the rivalry between these two Chevy drivers. Bodine had qualified on the outside pole along side Elliott and finished 2nd in his Twin 125 Mile Qualifer…..second to Earnhardt.

The race saw 19 lead changes in the first 113 laps, as the Fords, particularly Elliott, were not able to run away and hide. Elliott was in contention of course, but the race changed dramatically on the 117th lap. Neil Bonnett, who had led 32 laps earlier in the race, had suffered mechanical problems and found himself 18 laps off the pace. Yet, for some reason, he was still up at the front of the pack mixing it up with the leaders. This proved to fatal to the hopes of many contenders. Bonnett broke a wheel on lap 117, and by the time he had collected all he was going to eliminate, he’d ended the hopes of Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Joe Ruttman, Buddy Baker and Tommy Ellis among others. At this point, it was pretty much down to Earnhardt and Bodine.

Bodine would dominate the second half of the race, but many, Bodine included, will tell you it was only because Earnhardt let him. Bodine would later say that as the race wound down, that Earnhardt’s Wrangler Monte Carlo was the faster of the two Chevrolets, even though Bodine led over half of the event.  Bodine held the lead late, but Earnhardt was in the cat bird seat, exactly where he wanted, and needed to be, to win the Daytona 500. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Despite pitting one lap AFTER Earnhardt came to pit road, Bodine was able to stretch his fuel to the end, while Earnhardt could not. Earnhardt, likely from frustration and anger at losing the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion (and it would not be the last) slid through his pit, and then when taking off from pit-road, tore something up in the motor, relegating him to a 14th place finish.

For Bodine and Hendrick, it was a sign that the used car salesman from Charlotte was serious about this stock car racing thing. It was the first big win for Hendrick, and as we all know, it would not be his last. For Bodine, this win would easily mark the highlight of his career. It also wouldn’t be the last time a Hendrick car won the Daytona 500 thanks to some impressive fuel mileage.

The budding rivalry between Bodine and Earnhardt had a few more coals added to the fire with this outcome. And for Earnhardt, little did he know how many more tries it would take him to get a Daytona 500, it was already the second time he’d lost one in the closing laps, and as mentioned, it would not be the last time.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 21-25

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