They say that nobody remembers who finishes in second place. Whoever says that clearly doesn’t understand the history of the Daytona 500.
Not only do we often remember the drivers who lost the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion, sometimes we remember these victims of soul crushing defeats more than the winner themselves. Take 1979, do you remember who won? I bet you recall who wrecked in turn three on the last lap though. Quick, who led them across the line in 1990? Need a second? Ok, who cut a tire while leading a mere mile from victory? Do you remember the man who won in 2007, or the man he beat to the stripe by agonizing inches?
While we celebrate and memorialize the triumphs, we also vividly recall devastating and gut wrenching shortcomings just as much, if not more.
What is considered by many to be one of the greatest triumphs in Daytona 500 history is not remembered for the race itself, which was rather pedestrian, but for the immense heartbreak the winner had endured in prior Daytona 500s.
So while many will spend the week lauding the victors in Daytona 500s past, let’s not forget the most agonizing defeats.
Beginning tomorrow I’ll count down the 10 who have suffered the biggest heartbreak at the hands of The Great American Race during the past 50 years. But to get things started, I’ll list some that just missed the list, including a look at a Daytona 500 that took the wind right out of the sails of not a driver, but rather we the fans. And no, not 2001, that one is discussed enough, besides, its tragedy wasn’t yet known at the time of the conclusion of the event.
The Fans, 1992
Weather had never postponed the Daytona 500 until 2012, but that doesn’t mean it never left the fans holding the bag by denying the fans a true finish.
The 1965, 2003 and 2009 versions were cut short due to rain, and each left fans feeling short changed with an incomplete, less than “true” finish. However, neither of those runnings featured the emptiness the ultimate fan heartbreak version contained.
The 1992 Daytona 500 promised to be one of the best in recent memory. Story lines flew in from everywhere. Bill Elliott, synonymous with Daytona success in the 80’s, was driving for the legendary Junior Johnson, his first foray out of the family shop in Dawsonville, Georgia. Second generation driver Davey Allison ended the previous season as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit and was poised to have the Allison name back at the top of the sport. Darrell Waltrip was returning to Daytona, site of two horrific accidents in the last year and a half. Then you had Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs making his debut in NASCAR with another second generation driver carrying a legendary name, Dale Jarrett. Dale Earnhardt, fresh off three straight narrow losses was STILL trying to win the Daytona 500, and there was the small matter of this being the final Daytona 500 start in the storied career of “The King” Richard Petty, he the winner of seven Daytona 500’s.
Unfortunately, all but one of these story lines was deemed irrelevant before halfway.
On lap 92, Elliott, having established himself as perhaps the strongest car in the field, was battling teammate and pole sitter Sterling Marlin for the lead in turns one and two when defending race champion Ernie Irvan dove beneath the two of them exiting turn two. The ill fated move only needed seconds to turn into a disaster. The three tangled and before the smoke cleared, just about anybody and everybody wound up with a wrecked racecar. Elliott, Irvan, Marlin, Waltrip, Jarrett, Petty, and Earnhardt were all among those involved. Additionally notable names like Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader and Mark Martin also found their days ruined. Only a small handful of cars that had proven to be of any consequence survived the incident unscathed, and only two of them (Michael Waltrip and Morgan Sheppard) had any hope of being able to match up with the strongest survivor, Davey Allison.
Sheppard and Waltrip (who saw his chance at victory evaporate due to late engine failure) combined to lead 10 of the final 109 laps. Allison easily led the other 99 and had no trouble keeping Sheppard at bay down the stretch and across the line.
What promised to be one of the best Daytona 500’s, perhaps ever, quickly became a snooze fest with all the on track competition of a Formula 1 race for the final 250 miles.
Darrell Waltrip 1984
Much was made of it taking Waltrip 17 years to win the Daytona 500, and while the number of failed attempts for one of the ten greatest drivers ever was frustrating, the manner in which he lost pales in comparison to the nature of losses suffered by a couple of other multi-time series champions.
However, in 1984 Waltrip held the lead on the final lap, unfortunately the man who’d been trailing him for 38 laps was doing so according to plan. And that man was the guy who’d been fastest all week. Cale Yarborough executed the sling shot perfectly and before it was over Waltrip was relegated to third. Of all of his failed attempts to win, this was easily the closest he’d been to victory, more so than the bizarre 1979 runner-up performance.
David Pearson, 1975
With ten laps left, Pearson held a seemingly insurmountable lead of 5.2 seconds over Benny Parsons. When it was over Pearson found himself two laps down in fourth place.
With drafting assistance from Richard Petty, eight laps in arrears himself and eager to assist in the defeat of his arch rival, Parsons began cutting into the lead, and had it down to two seconds with three laps left.
Pearson, now under far more pressure than he expected was trying to navigate lap traffic, and doing so with much more urgency. The urgency resulted in Pearson tangling with Cale Yarborough sending the Wood Brothers owned Mercury sliding into the grass and Parsons into victory lane.
What would’ve happened had Petty pulled Parsons all the way to Pearson? We’ll never know. What we do know is Pearson never got the chance to fend off Parsons charge, only made possible itself thanks to a driver multiple laps behind.
Ken Schrader, 1989
All he did was win the pole, dominate the Busch Clash en route to victory, do the same thing in the Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday, and then lead 114 of the first 189 laps in the Daytona 500. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. The aforementioned Waltrip, in his 17th try to win the 500, managed to stretch his fuel considerably longer than anyone else and “stole” the Daytona 500 from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Buddy Baker, 1973
Richard Petty may have won the race, but there was no doubt who had the best car.
Despite a faster late race pit stop that appeared to have won the race for Petty, Baker showed the superiority in his Dodge while chasing Petty down at a rate that ensured he’d get to Petty’s back bumper before the end of the race.
Unfortunately his engine expired six laps from the finish, and despite leading a whopping 157 laps, Baker finished sixth.
Bobby Allison, 1981
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, as Petty found out in 1973 and 1974. And sometimes its better to be smart than fast.
Bobby Allison led for 117 laps from the pole, this after also winning his qualifier on Thursday. But when he made his final pit stop on lap 173 he took on right side tires, requiring a 17.4 second pit stop.
When Petty made his stop two laps later crew chief Dale Inman decided to forego fresh tires, opting only for gas only, resulting in a stop that was seven seconds quicker than his rival’s, creating a lead that Allison could never overcome.
Sterling Marlin, 2002
Short is the list of drivers who won the Daytona 500 more than twice, but if not for one of the most memorable boneheaded moves in sports history, it might be one longer.
While attempting to get underneath race leader Jeff Gordon on a late restart, Marlin came into contact with the four time champion, resulting in Gordon sliding thru the grass sideways and Marlin edging Ward Burton back to the line to get the caution, and presumably (pre GWC days) the win.
But instead of finishing under yellow, NASCAR opted to red flag the field to ensure a race to the checkered flag (a few losers of previous 500s wonder where this was in 1991 and 1997) under green flag conditions. Under the red flag, during which no work may be done on the racecar, Marlin became worried about the right front fender rubbing, and potentially cutting, the right front tire as a result of the contact with Gordon.
Marlin hopped out of his car on the back stretch and to the dismay of everyone, began tugging on the fender. Per NASCAR rules, Marlin was ordered to the rear of the field for the day’s final restart, ending his quest for a third Daytona 500 victory.
Would Marlin have pitted and lost track position regardless? Would the tire have held up for five miles? We don’t know the answer to either question.
And truthfully, most of us don’t even know that Ward Burton won the Daytona 500 that day, but we all know Sterling Marlin didn’t.