75th Anniversary Feature: Daytona the birthplace of speed

With the NASCAR season-opening DAYTONA 500 set for Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, race teams and race-starved fans are excitingly arriving in Daytona Beach, Florida this week.

THE locale. THE origin of it all.

From the iconic meeting of racing minds led by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. at the beachside Streamline Hotel to the historical markers dotting Daytona Beach’s famous sandy shoreline where the humble origins of this sport began 75 years ago; this year’s edition of the NASCAR’s grandest race is the perfect green flag to mark this important 75th Diamond Anniversary celebration.

The intensity and expectation that first popularized NASCAR racing all those decades ago on the famous Daytona Beach sand, remains absolutely intact and in full display this weekend for the 65th running of the DAYTONA 500 (Sunday, Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), “The Great American Race” at the sport’s premier superspeedway a few miles down the road.

Team Penske’s Austin Cindric is the defending race winner, taking his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series victory last February in his first DAYTONA 500 start – one of only nine drivers in series history to earn his first series win in this iconic race.

It’s a nod to the race’s incredible history which holds an indelible place in the sport.

“I love history anyway, so for me, this is our birthplace,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “Not just as a sport, but then the specialness of what this facility means.

“It is our crown jewel, the race itself, the race track and the redevelopment of the race track. But when you go through that tunnel, it’s that specialness right when you get up to the other side and you look behind you and it’s so cool. And the specialness of this race for sure because it’s the start of the season and everyone has hope. I’m going to win. My team’s going to win. My driver’s going to win. I think that’s a neat thing.”

The very first DAYTONA 500 on the 2.5-mile track’s high banks was won in 1959 by Lee Petty, whose son Richard would go on to become the very first seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and the all-time winningest series driver (200 wins) in history. An original member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame known simply as “The King,” Petty’s seven Daytona 500 wins are unmatched.

So many of the all-time greats in the sport similarly and fittingly cemented their legacy with DAYTONA 500 victories. Another NASCAR Hall of Famer, three-time series champion Cale Yarborough has four DAYTONA 500 crowns – second only to Petty.

Only 10 other drivers have multiple wins, including Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (three) and Legacy Motor Club’s Jimmie Johnson (two), who will be hoping to earn another this weekend. The seven-time series champion, Johnson, is the last driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in the same year he won the DAYTONA 500 in 2013.

Racing greats from other genres, open-wheel icons such as Mario Andretti (1967) and A.J. Foyt (1972) have hoisted Daytona trophies. And this week, action-star Travis Pastrana and IndyCar Series regular Conor Daly are hoping to add their names to that unique DAYTONA 500 winners list too.

Should Cindric earn another victory on Sunday, he would be only the fifth driver in race history to win back-to-back Daytona 500s – the last was Hamlin in 2019-20. Before that, Sterling Marlin created some 500 history of his own, winning the 1994-95 races – his first two career wins in the series coming in the biggest race.

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett is the last driver to win from pole position – doing so in 2000. Only two drivers have done that multiple times – Yarborough (1968 and 1984) and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (1985 and 1987).

The late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt is the winningest driver in Daytona International Speedway history with 34 wins – most of those trophies coming in a combination of The Clash, the Duel qualifying races, the Xfinity Series, the IROC Series and the summer NASCAR Cup Series races at the track. His lone DAYTONA 500 victory in 1998, however, remains one of the most iconic victories in the sport.

Even with a trophy case full of championships, winning the DAYTONA 500 is an honor and accomplishment like no other; it’s ensuring your name holds a place in NASCAR’s great history at the track forever associated with the sport.

“The 500 is always such a great atmosphere and the racing is always great because everyone wants to put their name on the list of winners for this race,” said Hamlin, who with a win on Sunday, would tie Yarborough with four DAYTONA 500 victories.

“That would mean a lot to me personally to move up that list,” Hamlin said of the historic implications. “I feel very good about it. [Crew chief] Chris [Gabehart] and my team do an unbelievable job, especially at this race, to give me a great opportunity, so I feel confident we’ll have a great chance Sunday.”

So much has changed during the seven and a half decades of competition since NASCAR became a sanctioning body in that famed closed door meeting at the Streamline.

The cars look and race differently, the schedule includes every kind of track configuration – short track, superspeedway, road course, street course – in an array of exciting cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta; from Homestead-Miami to a downtown Chicago street course debut this summer.

The safety innovations – from track to car to driver – have evolved and provide confidence. The season’s broadcast outreach is worldwide. And the grid of competitors has never been more diverse.

The DAYTONA 500 not only officially signals the season start, but it’s long held a special place, provided a unique “feel” and been the most celebrated of victories in the sport – all the result of that meeting on the beach nearly eight decades ago.

“There’s nothing like coming to the green flag at the DAYTONA 500,” said 2007 DAYTONA 500 winner Kevin Harvick, who will be retiring from competition at the end of the season.

“The reason is hard to explain unless you’ve done it. There’s no other race like the DAYTONA 500 and I realized that when I won the DAYTONA 500 in 2007. You look at the names on that trophy and you go back and look at the history of our sport and a lot of it has been made at Daytona.

“Whether it’s from the beach or the big track, it’s the Who’s Who of NASCAR. The DAYTONA 500 is the biggest race you’ll ever be a part of and it’s the biggest win you’ll ever have. It’s definitely the heart of NASCAR and what we do.”