- Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 18:37
- Published on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 18:37
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No doubt about it, there is a mystique about racing at Daytona. Maybe it’s the image of sun and beaches while we shiver through the cold and snow of winter. Maybe it’s the image of stock cars inches apart at incredible speeds. Maybe it’s the ever-present danger. Whatever the reason, there’s nothing like racing at Daytona and the start of another racing season.
Daytona International Speedway hosted the first Daytona 500 on Feb. 22, 1959. I can still remember the pictures in our local newspaper. We were amazed at the headlines of family sedans racing at incredible speeds, and the pictures of cars drafting with bumpers actually touching at speeds of more than 140 mph. If that didn’t get your blood going, they better check for a pulse. Our perception of Stock Car racing at the time was pretty much limited to the jalopies that raced at the local dirt bullring.
The first few years the starting positions were not determined by time trials, but by a qualifying race. Bob Welborn was on the pole in 1959, with a speed of 140.121 mph. The first driver to set on the pole due to the fastest qualifying speed was Paul Goldsmith in the 1964 “500.” Goldsmith set the track record at the time with a speed of 174.910 mph. The fastest qualifier in the track’s history was Bill Elliot in 1987. He qualified at 210.366 mph. That was the last year they ran at Daytona without restrictor plates.
The posted awards for that first Daytona 500 back in 1959 were $67,760. A field of 59 cars took the green flag for the start of the 200 lap race. A crowd of more than 41,000 race fans were on hand. The finish of that first race was a promoter’s dream. After 500 miles Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly came across the finish line in what looked like a three-car photo finish, although Weatherly was actually a lap down.
Johnny Beauchamp went to victory lane and Lee Petty was fit to be tied. Sixty-one hours later a photograph was produced that showed Petty actually crossed the finish line literally inches ahead of Beauchamp and Petty was declared the race winner.
Fifty-two years later, the Daytona 500 remains NASCAR’s biggest, richest and most prestigious race. Last year the race paid out a purse of more than $18 million. Race winner Jamie McMurray received a check for a bit more than $1.5 million.
The perks of winning Daytona are much more than just collecting the largest payday in the Sprint Cup Series, or hoisting the prestigious Harley J. Earl trophy. Wining stock car racings greatest race also brings fame and fortune.
“It’s the ultimate race,” said three-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon. “There’s just no better place to win than Daytona. If you pick one race, this is the one you want to win.”
Bill Davis Racing reaped a huge benefit after the 2002 Daytona 500 win with driver Ward Burton in the form of a sponsorship deal. Caterpillar, then in the final year of sponsoring Burton’s No. 22 car, opted to extend their sponsorship agreement, and the Daytona 500 win was major factor in that decision.
“Winning a race during Speedweeks , it makes you quite a bit more valuable. I think in the sport as a driver,” said 2004 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Winning any race at Daytona. It’s like going into Yankee Stadium and winning a game. It further solidifies you as a driver.”
The Rolex 24 is in the books. It’s a one, two finish for Ganassi Racing. The Super Bowl madness is history for another year. Now it’s Stock Car Racing’s turn to take center stage. It begins Saturday night with this year’s “Budweiser Shootout.”
The Shootout means nothing except bragging rights and a big paycheck for the winner. The total purse will be a bit over $1.2 million. Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner. It’s a 70 lap tease to get us ready for the serious racing to come next week and our first chance to see the racecars on the track’s newly paved surface.
Next Thursday we all need to figure a way to get the day off. The Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races to set the field for next Sunday’s 52nd running of the Daytona 500 begins at 2 p.m.