Legends still have it

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- NASCAR officials invited all 24 living champions for Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500.

The list includes six drivers who competed Sunday along with 18 others who have retired from what is now the Sprint Cup series. The group accounts for 42 of the 49 winners dating to 1959, when the late Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500.

Past winners who competed Sunday were Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett.

Headlining the list of past champions in attendance were Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.

Richard Petty, a seven-time Daytona 500 winner, waved the green flag.

"In 1959, they didn't have testing and that kind of stuff," Petty said. "When we came through the tunnel, I was a 21-year-old kid who probably ran 10-12 races in my lifetime. To come down here to run the biggest race there was, there was one building in the infield, and they had enough grandstands for probably 20-25,000 people.

"And that was it."

Yarborough first captured the checkered flag in 1968 and later repeated as champion in 1977, 1983 and 1984, making himself and Petty the only drivers to win the Daytona 500 in three different decades.

Yarborough's memories of the 1979 race center on the final-lap crash between then-leader Donnie Allison and himself. Moments after the crash, the two engaged in fisticuffs, and it was captured by CBS cameras.

Yarborough didn't talk about the fight, but he did talk about his three consecutive championship seasons from 1976-78.

"Evidently, it's pretty hard to do, because nobody had done it before," he said. "... Jimmie (Johnson, winner of the past two championships) has a good team, and he's a good racecar driver.

"Eventually, somebody will do it, and if Jimmie does it, it will suit me fine."


Lee Petty (above) and Johnny Beauchamp were the only contenders for the victory as the race approached its conclusion. As Petty and Beauchamp exchanged the lead in the final laps, Joe Weatherly, whose car was two laps down, was able to latch on to the leaders' draft.

On the final lap, when the leaders and Weatherly came off of Turn 4, they were three wide.

Both Petty and Beauchamp drove to Victory Lane and Beauchamp was declared the unofficial winner. Petty would actually be declared the winner 61 hours later after officials reviewed the still photos.


The showdown had been building for about 100 miles when David Pearson (above), on the final lap, passed Richard Petty on the Superstretch.

Exiting Turn 4, Petty had ducked low and passed Pearson but his car slightly drifted up the track and the two drivers touched and crashed. When both cars came to rest, they still had not crossed the start/finish line.

Petty's car wouldn't restart. But Pearson dumped the clutch and kept the car in neutral.

Pearson straightened out his damaged machine and slowly crossed the start/finish line to capture his only Daytona 500 victory.


In the first live televised broadcast, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison were battling side-by-side for victory on the final lap.

Neither Yarbrough nor Allison ever made it to the checkered flag. The two drivers were banging on each other down the Superstretch and crashed entering Turn 3.

Richard Petty (above) and Darrell Waltrip battled for the victory with Petty holding on for his sixth win.

Meanwhile back in Turn 3, one of the landmark moments in the history of NASCAR took place as Yarborough and Allison began a heated debate that turned into a fist fight.

After 20 years, Dale Earnhardt (above) finally captured his elusive Daytona 500 victory.

To kick off NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration, Earnhardt ended one of sports' greatest jinxes leading 107 laps, including the final 61, winning the 1998 Daytona 500 under caution.

Following his victory, crew members lined pit road to congratulate him on his victory, a gathering that has never been done before or since.

Following the procession, Earnhardt treated fans to doughnuts in the grassy tri-oval creating a No. 3 in the grass.


Kevin Harvick (above), who started seventh on the final green-white-checkered restart, nipped Mark Martin to capture the win. The margin of victory -- .020 seconds -- was the closest finish since the advent of computer scoring. Harvick's victory set a couple of records:

- His four laps led tied 1975 champion Benny Parsons for the fewest laps led by a Daytona 500 winner.

- His starting position of 34th was the lowest a winner.

- He became the fifth driver to win the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Busch Series race in the same year.

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