From the legendary fist fight after the first Daytona 500, to Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal crash in 2001, here are NASCAR's most gripping events ever.
Matt Crossman 1 / 11
No other sport has the suspense of potential disaster like auto racing. In NASCAR, every lap is dangerous — the slightest twitch from a driver can cause six-figure damage to the car, and injury or death to himself, other racers, and spectators. Talk about intense. And you don’t have to look far off the track to find more drama: NASCAR culture is basically a mix of petty high school politics and the organized disarray of a traveling circus. Here then, are the 10 most dramatic moments in NASCAR history. NASCAR’S 10 Most Controversial Drivers >>>
10. Richard Petty Wins 200th Race with President Ronald Reagan in Attendance
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan gave the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” onboard the Air Force One via phone as he flew to attend the 4th of July race at Daytona International Speedway — the first president to do so. At this race, Richard Petty got his 200th W, the most wins ever, by a whopping 95. Petty raced for eight more years and never visited victory lane again.
9. First Daytona 500 Ends in Photo Finish
Modern technology makes it possible to know who won every race immediately, no matter how close it was. But none of that technology existed in 1959 for the inaugural Daytona 500, which was also the first race at Daytona International Speedway. Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty appeared to cross the finish line at the same time to the naked eye, and NASCAR initially gave the win to Beauchamp. However, after spending three days reviewing photographs and film of the finish, they changed their minds. Petty, patriarch of the most dominant racing family in America, won 10 more races and the championship that season.
8. 1979 Daytona 500 Ends in Fist Fight
The first NASCAR race aired from start to finish on live TV coincided with a massive snowstorm in the Northeast leaving people with nothing to do except watch the Southerners race. And to their credit, the Southerners put on a good show indeed. After a last-lap crash, Cale Yarborough got in a fistfight just off the track with the Allison brothers (Bobby and Donnie). Bobby arrived to give Donnie a ride back to the garage after the crash, at which point Bobby and Yarborough traded insults first and then punches.
7. Wendell Scott is First (and Only) African American to Win a NASCAR Cup Race
In Jacksonville, Florida in 1963, Wendell Scott was initially denied his win, reportedly because NASCAR officials did not want a black man kissing the white beauty queen in victory lane. And throughout his career Scott was the target of racist drivers and promoters. A few hours after the race ended, NASCAR confirmed that not only did Scott take the checkered flag, but also he did it two laps ahead of the second-place finisher. Scott won more than 100 races in other racing series, but this was his lone win at NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup level series. He remains the only African American to have won such a race.
6. Dale Earnhardt Wins Daytona 500 after 19 Tries
One time, he hit a bird. Another time, he got a flat tire. Luck was definitely not on his side. Earnhardt came so close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race, but he couldn’t seal the deal, leaving a gaping hole on his otherwise sterling resume. When he finally won it in 1998, the most famous post-race celebration in the sport’s history ensued, with members of every team lining up to shake his hand as he drove by.
5. NASCAR Crushes Drivers’ Attempts to Unionize
The NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have all suffered embarrassing labor disagreements in recent years. Not so in NASCAR, because it flattened the two attempts drivers made to unionize. In 1961, Curtis Turner tried to get drivers to affiliate with the Teamsters but NASCAR banned him for life —though that was lifted and he returned in 1965. In 1969, the fledgling Professional Drivers Association boycotted a race at Talladega, which top drivers considered unsafe. When NASCAR held the race anyway, that was essentially the end of any union-like attempt.
4. Dozens of Fans Injured in 2013 Crash
More than 30 fans were hurt when a last-lap crash in a Nationwide Series race sent car parts hurtling into the stands at Daytona International Speedway in February. It was one of the scariest fan-related incidents in NASCAR history, and witnesses said it was simply a matter of luck that nobody was killed. The wreck involved 12 cars, and occurred about 50 yards from the finish line. Incredibly, none of the drivers were hurt.
3. Gordon and Johnson vie for Title After Plane Crash
A plane crash four weeks before the end of the 2004 season killed 10 people, including a handful of Hendrick Motorsports employees and their family members. Two Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, were still in contention for the championship at the time of the crash. Each had an unbelievable late surge, despite overwhelming pressure and grief: Johnson won two races and averaged a finish over the final four races of 2.5. Gordon finished in the top three places in the last three races. Both tried for the championship — which, had they won, would have been the most heartwarming win in NASCAR history — but neither got it. Kurt Busch beat them both.
2. Tony Stewart Wins 2011 Championship on Final Race
There has never been a season-ending race like this one and probably never will be again. Tony Stewart entered the final race hoping to win the championship since he trailed the leader Carl Edwards by just three points. However, he had to bag the final race to get the points to win the championship — a seemingly impossible feat. But that’s what he did. Edwards finished the race second, and the two drivers finished the season tied in points, which had never happened in NASCAR history. The tiebreaker goes to the driver with highest number of wins. To Stewarts delight, he had the edge with five W’s to Edwards’ one.
1. Dale Earnhardt Dies in Daytona 500
It’s not just the most dramatic moment in NASCAR history — it’s one of the most dramatic in modern U.S. sports history. When Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, it thrust him and NASCAR into the public consciousness in a new light. Earnhardt was a member of the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class and is widely regarded as one of the top two drivers in history. But perhaps his greatest legacy is this: his death sparked an ongoing safety revolution in NASCAR, and nobody has died in a NASCAR race since he did.