The 'Best of' the Daytona 500 1959 Inaugural Set The Standard For Daytona 500s To Come (This is the first installment in a six-part series on the best Daytona 500s, divided by decades. Today, the 1959 race is featured. Next up in the series:...
The 'Best of' the Daytona 500
1959 Inaugural Set The Standard For Daytona 500s To Come
(This is the first installment in a six-part series on the best Daytona 500s, divided by decades. Today, the 1959 race is featured. Next up in the series: the best Daytona 500 of the 1960s.)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 7, 2008) -- The greatest Daytona 500 ever? Hard to say. So hard, in fact, that this year's "Best of the Daytona 500" series isn't even going to try.
Instead, this second-annual "Best Of" series will tab five Daytona 500s, one per decade beginning with the 1960s. Those races were selected based on a combination of criteria such as race action, historical significance and how the race finished. Debate is welcomed -- and encouraged.
Of course, the by-the-decade approach leaves the sole race in the 1950s to stand on its own -- which in this case is most appropriate. After all, many still consider the 1959 inaugural running of the Daytona 500 the best one ever. The race of '59 is the perfect "set-up" for this series.
Much of that has to do with the photo-finish, a result too close to call initially and one that wasn't officially determined until three days after the checkered flag flew.
The 1959 race, won by Lee Petty, set the standard for drama at the Daytona 500. If race fans didn't know they were being treated to something special beforehand at the new 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, they certainly did afterward.
First Daytona 500 Stands The Test Of Time, In 'Best Of' Debate
The Favorites in '59: Lee Petty, Bob Welborn, Fireball Roberts.
The Intangible: The fact that when you got right down to it, there were perhaps no real favorites, since the massive DIS tri-oval was the ultimate unknown entity. It led race winner Lee Petty to say "we were all rookies."
The Winner's Stats: Petty started 15th, led 38 laps -- including the last four -- and had an average speed of 135.521 mph
The Rundown: This would be the only Daytona 500 featuring both hard-top and convertible stock cars, adding to the uniqueness of the race, which attracted a crowd in the neighborhood of 50,000. ... Drivers started getting a feel for what eventually became known as "drafting" on the DIS high banks, but aerodynamic assistance notwithstanding, they still drove somewhat carefully. There were no caution flags during the 200-lap event. ... Late in the race, only Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were on the lead lap, whereupon they began trading the lead. Petty passed Beauchamp and led Laps 150-154. Beauchamp then led 155-161. Petty led 162-182, Beauchamp 183 and 184, Petty on 185-187. ... The suddenly furious battle continued: Beauchamp on 188, Petty on 189. Beauchamp for Laps 190 and 191, Petty for the next four. ... Beauchamp led Lap 196 but on Lap 197 Petty retook the lead for what proved to be the final time. ... All of that craziness amounted to 12 lead swaps over 49 laps. ... At the finish, Petty -- in between Beauchamp on the inside and the lapped car of Joe Weatherly on the outside, appeared to cross the stripe first. Initial photos were deemed inconclusive by NASCAR President Bill France Sr., who watched the finish up close in front of the main grandstands. France put out an "all-call" for more photo evidence. As it turned out "stills" weren't enough. Newsreel footage was the clincher for Petty, and France declared him the winner on Wednesday, Feb. 25 -- three days after the race was run.
Petty's Take: "It was close. Too close."
The Follow-Up: Lee Petty went on to win his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in the 1959 season. But he raced in the Daytona 500 only one more time, finishing fourth in 1960. Petty spoke frankly about not being comfortable on the massive DIS tri-oval and those feelings were manifested in a 1961 accident during one of the 500's qualifying races. Petty's injuries ended up curtailing his career, as he raced only six more times after that accident that involved one other driver -- Beauchamp, who wasn't hurt nearly as badly as Petty but nonetheless never raced in NASCAR again.