As we roll on into another year and we head into Speedweeks 2013 one can't help but think about the date. February 15th. It's a date that has so many NASCAR memories it may go down as one of the greatest dates in NASCAR history.
Think about the first NASCAR points race held on that day. It was way back on February 15, 1953 when the NASCAR Grand National Series ran on the Daytona Beach course. Many may not recall what had happened that day but it was the first time in NASCAR's short four year history that a last lap pass decided a winner in NASCAR. It happened when one of racing's most iconic names at the time ran out of fuel on the final lap and little known Bill Blair sped on to win his third and final career NASCAR victory. He did it on the final lap when Fonty Flock, one of four legendary racers with the same last name, ran out of fuel on the final lap.
It was just the start of this amazing date.
Then came February 15, 1976. The date that still rings with some NASCAR fans as maybe the greatest Daytona 500 of all time. In the closing laps of the Daytona 500 were two of NASCAR's best drivers. In first was Richard Petty, who at the time had five Daytona 500 victories and his family owned Petty Enterprise team had won the Daytona 500 seven times. Petty was NASCAR's best driver. At the time Petty had over 150 career victories and six career point championships. He was leading rival David Pearson.
Pearson was driving for the legendary Wood Brothers team who had won the Daytona 500 three times previous. Pearson had already made his name in stock car racing, winning three championships of his own and notching over 80 wins to his belt. The two were fierce rivals on the track and at the time had finished first and second 30 times in NASCAR history.
Both drivers ran in the lead pack all afternoon. It wasn't long before both drivers had separated themselves from the field with about 25 laps to. Pearson was in front, until Petty passed Pearson with 13 laps to go. Pearson then sat behind Petty for 12 laps waiting for a time to strike. As the drivers came off of turn two onto the backstretch Pearson dove low on Petty's iconic Petty blue Dodge. Pearson would make the pass and led Petty as they headed into turn three. Pearson drifted high and Petty drove underneath Pearson to try and take the lead back. Both drivers were leaning on each other and driving so hard that they were almost out of control. Petty tried to clear Pearson coming off of turn four when both cars went sideways. Petty had made contact with Pearson sending both cars into the outside wall and sliding down into the infield grass. Pearson's car was just on the entrance of the grass while Petty's laid about 100 yards shy of the start finish line. For an instant people wondered who was going to win the 500, when through the dust, dirt and smoke a damaged and mangled #21 Mercury came through the smoke like in a Hollywood movie. Petty tried to get his car refired but he couldn't do it and Pearson crawled across the finish line for maybe the slowest green flag finish in NASCAR history.
Fans roared when Pearson went into victory lane, Pearson gave his famous South Carolina grin in victory lane saying he didn't believe Petty cut him off intentionally. Petty said he thought he had him cleared but he didn't. It is perhaps the greatest Daytona 500 in NASCAR history.
Just another amazing finish on February 15th.
Then came the 1987 Daytona 500, which is perhaps the least exciting race on this date. However, it's still worth mentioning. As the race was winding down to the finish it was up to two drivers. Geoff Bodine, who was bidding for his second Daytona 500 in a row, was leading the race with just three laps to go. Bodine was trying to stretch his fuel and when the #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet slowed running out of gas. Bill Elliott, who is one of the most popular drivers of all time, sped ahead to win the Daytona 500 the second of his career. While Elliott may not had had the dominate car he had in 1985, he and his team managed the 500 miles perfectly and won the race.
Then comes 1998.
February 15, 1998 is a date Dale Earnhardt fans will remember forever. It was the day Dale Earnhardt had climb Mount Everest and stuck his flag in the top. It was a date where perhaps the greatest racecar driver of all time finally concurred NASCAR's biggest prize.
Going into the 1998 Daytona 500 was just like every other year. Dale Earnhardt was going to have one of the cars to beat. Earnhardt was and still is the best restrictor plate racer of all time. Prior to 1998, Earnhardt had won at Daytona 30 times. He had won several Busch Series races, IROC races, Busch Clash's, Qualfiying races and the July 400 miler at the famed speedway. The Daytona 500 however, seemed to always get away.
In 1984 Earnhardt finished second to Cale Yarborough, a trend that became all too common for Earnhardt. In 1986 Earnhardt running second to Geoff Bodine as both drivers tried to stretch their fuel. Earnhardt was right on Bodine's bumper when with just three laps to go Earnhardt pitted to get a last splash of fuel. The plan was to come out in second and pray for Bodine to run out of gas. If Bodine did run out of gas Earnhardt would be right there to pounce and take the checkers. It was not meant to be. Earnhardt would stall his car as he was exiting the pits and Bodine would speed ahead to victory. It was just one of many heartbreaks for the Intimidator.
In 1990, Earnhardt had the dominate car of speedweeks. He won His Gatorade Twin 125, he sat on the outside of the front row and had the dominate car in the Daytona 500. He had led 155 of the race's 199 laps when Earnhardt led second place driver Derrike Cope as he took the field into turn three. Then, out of nowhere, Earnhardt's car shot up the racetrack and rubber began flying everywhere. It was a stunning scene. Cope, who had never won a NASCAR Winston Cup race before, won the Daytona 500 in shocking style. Earnhardt would coast into pit road in disappointment.
In 1991 Earnhardt was running amongst the leaders when his car broke loose and slammed Davey Allison and the two began spinning. It was another heartbreak as Earnhardt had led 46 laps of the race only to come home fifth. In 1993 Earnhardt appeared to be well on his way to a 500 victory. He had the lead with two laps to go but the pack was closing in on him. Earnhardt's handle began to go away and he just couldn't keep the car on the bottom. Dale Jarrett and Earnhardt were side by side when the field took the white flag and Jarrett got the lead as they headed into turn one. Jarrett's car was too strong for Earnhardt who, yet again would finish runner-up in the Daytona 500.
In 1995 it happened again, Earnhardt led a nice chunk of the laps and finished second. Same story with 1996 as he finished second again to Dale Jarrett. In 1997 Earnhardt had led early on and was in position to make a move with ten laps to go. That's when contact happened between he and Jeff Gordon, which sent Earnhardt's car into a flip. Earnhardt was shaken but uninjuried and drove the #3 car to a finish, stunning everyone who watched that day.
Still as the February 15, 1998 race approached Earnhardt continued to face the question of why he had never won a Daytona 500. Little did everyone know that was about to change. He would dominate the race leading 106 of the races 200 laps. He was leading when a crash between Lake Speed and John Andretti occurred as the field raced to take the yellow. If Earnhardt could hold off a hard charging Bobby Labonte the Daytona 500 would be his for the first time in his career. He did. Labonte just didn't have enough for Earnhardt and he was finally a Daytona 500 champion.
As Earnhardt came around to head to victory lane an iconic image arose. Every member from every team lined up to shake Earnhardt's hand. All his competitor were happy Earnhardt had finally done it and knew how much that win meant to him. It was a victory that meant everything to Earnhardt as he had now accomplished everything a driver could in the sport of NASCAR. Earnhardt did donuts in the grass and drove into victory lane. He climbed on top of his car in celebration and hugged team owner Richard Childress, who had been there through a lot of Earnhardt's heartbreaks. It was an epic moment in NASCAR history.
On February 15, 2004 another Earnhardt would make history.
Dale Earnhardt Jr was the sports best driver on Superspeedways and it only took him five tries to win the Daytona 500. He would hold off a hard charging Tony Stewart as he and Stewart, and the lap car of Kurt Busch had separated themselves from the rest of the field. Earnhardt's win is one of the most popular Daytona 500 victories of all time as it continued to help heal the long and still on going heartache that the NASCAR community still has.
Also Earnhardt was and is still the most popular driver on the circuit and many fans were thrilled by his victory.
The streak of great finishes on February 15th ended with the first rain shortened race in Daytona 500 history. Now that NASCAR has pushed back the Daytona 500 one week from when it was normally ran, February 15th may not see too many more races in NASCAR.
However, February 15th sure left its impact when it came to Daytona, that's for sure.
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