It was a beautiful day in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 20, with clear skies and abundant sunshine for the 36th running of the Daytona 500.
However, there was a dark and somber mood in the NASCAR Cup Series garage area throughout Speedweeks.
This was due to the deaths of drivers Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr in two separate practice sessions for the 500. On Feb. 11, Bonnett was turning laps in the first practice sessions when a shock mount broke on his No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, sending Bonnett careening head on into the turn 4 wall. Bonnett, an 18-time Cup winner with a previous injury history, did not survive the crash. He was 47 years old.
Three days later, Orr, a rookie looking to qualify for his first Daytona 500, spun in turn 2 during another practice session, hitting the outside wall at upward of 175 mph. Orr died instantly from injuries incurred in the crash at only 31.
The twin tragedies prompted Rusty Wallace to make an impassioned speech at the prerace drivers meeting that aired during the prerace coverage on CBS. In front of the drivers and team, Wallace called out overaggressive driving and made a call for drivers to make smarter decisions out on the track.
“I’m tired of losing my friends and my friends getting hurt,” Wallace said. “I hope you’ve got a lot of consideration for the other competitors instead of a lot of balls and no brains. We don’t need that in this sport.”
Outside of the fatal wrecks, another notable pre-race storyline could be found at the front of the grid. In qualifying, rookie Loy Allen Jr., turned heads when he piloted the No. 19 Hooters Ford to the pole at a speed of 190.158 mph.
A more experienced and recognizable face took the outside pole: Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator had won everything you could at Daytona International Speedway except for the 500. Coming into 1994, Earnhardt was 0-for-15 in the Great American Race, and the 1993 rendition wound up being arguably his most heartbreaking 500 loss yet. Earnhardt led 107 of 200 laps in 1993, only to get passed on the last lap by Dale Jarrett.
Speaking of Jarrett, Speedweeks got off to a bad start for him in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet. After a mid-pack effort in qualifying, Jarrett blew an engine early in the second Gatorade 125 Duel race, forcing his Joe Gibbs Racing team to take a provisional spot in the field, starting way back in 41st.
After a long and adverse Speedweeks marred by tragedy and rain, Allen and Earnhardt led the field to the green flag under sunny skies and in front of a capacity crowd at Daytona. Troy Aikman, quarterback for reigning Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, waved the green flag to get the field of 42 cars underway. At a victory party after the Cowboys’ win over the Buffalo Bills, Aikman met Cup driver Sterling Marlin, who entered the 1994 season winless in 278 career starts. Marlin rolled the grid fourth at Daytona in hopes of capturing that elusive checkered flag on the sport’s biggest stage.
Ernie Irvan came from the second row to lead the opening lap in the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing, and he continued be a consistent presence near the front throughout the race. Irvan surrendered the lead briefly to Earnhardt on lap 11, only to take it back one lap later. Irvan and Earnhardt dueled for the top spot until the race’s first caution on lap 25 for debris.
Jeff Gordon, at the time a second-year driver still seeking his first win, led the field back to green on lap 28. From there, the race settled into a 35-lap green-flag run, with the racing at Daytona a little more spread out compared to the present day yet still heavily dependent on the draft.
Throughout this run, Wallace, who started fifth, began to fade toward the back after a bad adjustment under yellow made his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford too loose. The loss of track position put Wallace in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting swept up in the first of two big crashes in the race. On lap 63, contact between Kyle Petty’s No. 42 Pontiac and Chuck Bown’s No. 12 Ford sparked a 10-car accident in turn 4 that knocked three drivers out of the race — most notably Wallace, who wound up 41st in the final running order.
When the field went back green on lap 71, Todd Bodine led the way in the No. 75 Ford, hoping to spring an upset. Those hopes, however, were short lived, as 10 laps later, contact between Bodine and Gordon set off a wreck on the backstretch that sent Bodine to the garage, finishing 36th.
The Great American Race passed the halfway in the midst of a 54-lap green flag run, with frequent lead changes in a race filled with 33 of them. Among those lead changes, Jarrett made two brief stints out front, completing a comeback from the back of the pack. But when the race restarted on lap 146, Jarrett could not get back up to speed, blowing his second engine of the weekend and plummeting to a 35th-place finish.
Following the fourth and final caution for debris, the Daytona 500 stayed green for the final 54 laps. Unlike the back-and-forth lead changes up to that point, the final green-flag run featured only three swaps of the top spot. Marlin made his first appearance at the front by getting around Derrike Cope on lap 149.
Nine laps later, Marlin gave up the lead to Irvan, who was seeking his second Daytona 500 crown following his win in 1991. Coincidently, Irvan won that race in the No. 4 Chevrolet for Morgan-McClure Motorsports, the same car now driven by Marlin.
Marlin and Irvan separated themselves from the rest of the field as the laps wound down. On lap 180, Irvan got loose and had to collect his No. 28, allowing Marlin to pass to his inside.
From there, Marlin never looked back, keeping the field behind him and collecting his elusive first career win in the Great American Race.
“I knew when I left the house, I was going to win the race,” Marlin told CBS Sports’ Mike Joy in victory lane afterward. “It wasn’t looking too good early, but they did a heck of a job getting the car adjusted, and man, I love them.”
Marlin’s victory in the 36th Daytona 500 changed the complexion of his Cup career, going from a winless journeyman to a genuine contender. Marlin’s career arguably peaked with a three-win season in 1995, which included a repeat win in the Great American Race, one of just four drivers to accomplish that feat.
Marlin parted ways with Morgan-McClure in 1997, signing to pilot the No. 40 for Felix Sabates, which eventually evolved into the iconic Silver Bullet Dodge under Chip Ganassi Racing. In 2001, Marlin won twice and finished third in points, and he seemed poised to contend for the 2002 title before a neck injury sustained in a crash at Kansas Speedway cut his season short.
After leading nine times for a total of 45 laps, Earnhardt fell off the lead pack to finish seventh, falling short in the Daytona 500 once again. Earnhardt’s 500 drought continued until 1998, when he finally won the Harley J. Earl Trophy in his 20th attempt. The 1994 season did end on a happy note for the Intimidator, winning nine races and capturing his seventh and final Cup championship.
Allen, the first rookie to ever sit on the Daytona 500 pole, wound up finishing two laps down in the 22nd position. Allen won two more poles in his rookie season but accured only one top-10 finish in a Cup career that ended after 1999.
After the deaths of Bonnett and Orr, the Daytona 500 that year went off without any further heartbreak and largely free of wrecks, much to the relief of the teams, fans, and NASCAR as a sanctioning body. Looking back, the 36th Daytona 500 will be remembered equally for the triumph of a previously winless veteran and the tragedy of two drivers whose lives got cut far too short.
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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