Fresh asphalt has produced a pair of iconic races over the course of Daytona International Speedway’s first 52 years. Look for similar results when this year’s Daytona 500 tests a brand-new asphalt surface on Feb. 20.
In 1959, the winner of the track’s inaugural race – NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Lee Petty – wasn’t determined until days after the checkered flag waved.
Twenty years later, the 1979 Daytona 500 featured an end-of-race dust-up between Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Allison that remains among NASCAR’s top dramatic moments.
Richard Petty, winner of that historic 1979 Daytona 500, remembers the difference between repaves three decades ago.
“In 1978, the track was worn out and the tires would run down quick,” said Petty, a seven-time winner of the Daytona 500. “It made a big difference that year.”
Second-place finisher in the ’79 edition Darrell Waltrip, who will call this year’s race for FOX, predicts fireworks. “The same thing that happened that day will repeat itself I'm sure,” he said, referencing a race in which the lead changed hands 36 times and only 18 cars were running at the finish. “Look for lots of lead changes. Plus if we have ‘boys, have at now,’ ... well with the fight in '79 we had ‘boys, I've had it’ then.
Contemporary NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers echo similar feelings in the run-up to this year’s edition of the “Great American Race.”
In short, the 2011 race shapes up as being a classic.
“It is going to be wild,” said Carl Edwards winner of 2010’s final two races. “The track is so smooth and has so much grip that there is no telling what people will try.
“The last lap is going to be insane.”
Jamie McMurray won last year’s Daytona 500 edging Dale Earnhardt Jr. by less than two-tenths of a second. McMurray believes this year’s leader will have a greater number of pursuers when Lap 200 rolls around.
“Daytona’s going to be different from a driver’s perspective. You’re not ever going to get a break,” McMurray said. “It used to be about running around in a pretty big pack and then as the tires wore out guys whose cars wouldn’t handle would get into single file. With the new pavement it will be three-wide most of the race. I think it will be exciting to watch.”
Kurt Busch won last Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on the new surface. Post-race, Busch talked about what he learned about the new pavement, and new style of racing.
“The fans were on their feet, they were jumping up and down, they just saw this whole new style of draft,” Busch said. “We all knew this coming in on the fresh repave, what is this going to bring. The way the cars are set up, the way the restrictor plates work, the way that the bumpers align themselves, this is fresh asphalt, this is a whole new look.”
Matt Kenseth, the 2009 Daytona 500 winner, agrees. “I think it will be just like Talladega since they paved that (track). Handling isn’t going to matter. I think it is going to be all about drafting.” Last year, Talladega Superspeedway set records in both lead changes (88) and leaders (29).
Kevin Harvick won last July’s Coke Zero 400 – the final race on Daytona’s old asphalt. Harvick is the 2007 Daytona 500 champion and won last February’s Budweiser Shootout.
“It’s going to be a little bit narrower than Talladega so the chess match will be the same,” said Harvick. “Just put speed in your car and play the game. It could be one of the best races you’ve seen in here in a long time.”
Only two drivers – Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon – have won the Daytona 500 and the championship in the same season in the past 31 years. For Johnson, a different strategy is employed for the Daytona 500.
“For the Daytona 500, at least in my mind and I think most drivers look at it the same way, you’re willing to make a lot of risky moves,” said Johnson, whose Daytona 500 victory came in 2006, the season that began his string of five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. “Points don’t seem to be a premium yet.
“We’re going to see a very, very action-packed Daytona 500.”
The 43-car Daytona 500 starting field will be set Thursday, Feb. 17, with the running of the Gatorade Duel at Daytona races. The 53rd Daytona 500 is set for 1 p.m. ET and will be broadcast live by FOX, MRN Radio and Sirius NASCAR Radio.