A snowbound East Coast watched the first live flag-to-flag Daytona 500 in 1979 and bore witness to one of the more sublime moments in NASCAR history as Donnie Allison, later aided by his brother, Bobby, and Cale Yarborough fought on the side of the track. Donnie Allison had sparked a wreck when Yarborough attempted to pass for the lead on the last lap, allowing Richard Petty to steal away with the win. The spectacle ignited a new national interest in what had been a Southern pastime.
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Richard Petty led on the final lap. Friend and rival David Pearson whipped past for the lead out of Turn 4. Petty made a last bid for the lead but nudged Pearson, sending both sliding onto the grass near the finish line. Petty was unable to re-fire, but Pearson nursed his car across the finish line for the victory.
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Dale Earnhardt's notoriously cruel fortune in the Daytona 500 was never better illustrated than in 1990, when a cut tire in Turn 3 of the final lap cost him a victory and allowed Derrike Cope to pass for the win. This was the same Derrike Cope who notched only two career wins, one of them coming at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt's career wins: 76, one in the Daytona 500.
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Millions of fans lost their living legend on Feb. 18, 2001 when Dale Earnhardt, 49, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was battling, blocking, pushing until the end, when his No. 3 Chevrolet nosed into the Turn 4 wall. His death gave greater momentum to a movement toward greater safety development and implementation, and likely saved scores of drivers who sustained similar crashes in the ensuing decade.
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Richard Petty's No. 43 Pontiac was involved in one of the most horrifying wrecks in the history of a speedway that has been the stage for ... horrifying wrecks. Petty was launched into the fence on Lap 104 and his car rolled along the fenceline, down the front stretch until tumbling back onto the track and disgorging parts as it was rammed by another race car. Petty walked away virtually unharmed except for a temporary vision problem.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned DIS into a mass of celebrating, crying, exulting true believers in 2004, passing Tony Stewart on Lap 181 of 200 and winning NASCAR's most important race for the first, and to this point, only time. Earnhardt Jr. had finally claimed the biggest prize where his namesake and father had perished on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
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The first Daytona 500 set a high bar for drama. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battled to the finish line -- with the lapped Joe Weatherly above them -- in a race too close to call, although Beauchamp celebrated what he thought was a win. Days later, NASCAR officials discovered -- after viewing a still of just-developed news reel footage -- that Petty had actually nosed the finish line first and was declared the winner.
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Dale Earnhardt endured two decades of frustrations and tribulations in the Daytona 500, despite dominating nearly every other form of racing at the speedway. When the veteran finally claimed his only Daytona 500 win in 1998, colleagues and competitors lined pit road to congratulate him in a long reception line up pit road.
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Rules seemingly should have dictated that the running order was locked when a melee broke out behind leader Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick's drag race to the finish line in the last few hundred feet of the 2007 Daytona 500. Or when Clint Bowyer's car went sliding upside down, showering sparks like a satellite re-entering orbit. But officials allowed Martin, who is winless in 51 starts at Daytona, and Harvick to duel to the final and Harvick nosed the finish line .020 seconds earlier.
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It was an upset for the ages. 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, in only his second Sprint Cup start, held off Carl Edwards to capture the checkers at the Great American Race. In the process, Bayne became the youngest driver to ever hit Victory Lane in NASCAR's biggest race.
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