With each Daytona 500, the dawn of a new era begins in one way or another. The 1993 edition of the Great American Race was no different.
It began with one of the most iconic drivers in the sport’s history no longer entering as a driver and ended with one of today’s top teams in the NASCAR Cup Series getting its first win and a future Hall of Famer cashing in for a groundbreaking victory.
As NASCAR made its February foray to Daytona International Speedway’s high banks in 1993, it was known that at least one thing would be missing. A few months removed from his final race as a driver, Petty Enterprises would enter a race without Richard Petty behind the wheel. The team even opted to enter the STP entry driven by Rick Wilson as the No. 44, choosing not to run the No. 43.
But fans of the Petty name were not without a rooting interest. Driving for Felix Sabates and the SABCO Racing team, Kyle Petty gave fans lots to talk about during Speedweeks, winning the pole. Yes, the first Daytona 500 without Richard Petty driving in it had his son leading the field to the green flag.
Petty had an extra incentive. Sabates offered the third-generation racer a $1 million bonus each for winning the Daytona 500, either of that season’s Cup events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway or the season championship.
The day was another chapter, one that’d later be agonizing, for Earnhardt’s quest for an elusive Daytona 500 victory. He won the Busch Clash as well as his Twin 125 qualifying race, but as always, the elusive target would be sought by the No. 3 car as the 200 laps ticked by.
Over the first 150 laps, there were only five spans of more than 10 laps in a row led by the same driver. The most? Earnhardt pacing the field for 27 circuits, which got the race to the 150-lap mark.
And that’s when the race tightened up with some on- and off-the-track fireworks.
With the field tightened up a few laps after a restart, the field being tightly packed together bred more drama. Coming through the tri-oval on lap 157, Al Unser Jr., making his Daytona 500 debut, got out of shape after slight contact with Earnhardt, getting into the No. 90 of Bobby Hillin Jr. In a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Petty had nowhere to go, ending the day for both.
“I don’t know what happened. They all just got sideways and came across in front of me,” Hillin told CBS Sports after the wreck. “I lost my brakes going through the brakes sliding through the grass. I had no idea where I was sliding, Kyle has been following me thinking that I let off the brakes. We’re all upset right now and we’ll all get over it.”
Both appeared displeased, engaging in a shouting match less than a foot apart along with some shoving of each other.
It wasn’t the final eye-catching caution of the day. Restrictor-plate tracks were unkind to Rusty Wallace in his career, and one of the most savage layers of that came in the 1993 Daytona 500. After Derrike Cope got into the rear of Michael Waltrip on Daytona’s long backstretch, Wallace was tagged, taking a tumble into the grass. He barrel rolled multiple times before coming to a rest and walking away from the harrowing wreck.
Adversity of different types found its way to others who had previously seen success at Daytona. 1985 and ’87 Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott exited early with an engine failure, while defending race winner Davey Allison was plagued by chassis problems and reigning champion Alan Kulwicki suffered a dropped cylinder.
All of that set the stage for one of the Daytona 500’s most memorable finishes.
With the race making its way inside the final 10 laps, Earnhardt was in a familiar position: in contention to win the Daytona 500. His car, however, was a bit on the loose side. Too loose, in fact.
With Earnhardt at the point, Jarrett got by Gordon on the high side in turn 1 with two laps remaining, putting the No. 3 in his sights. And when Earnhardt’s No. 3 got loose and drifted high coming away from turn 4, Jarrett took the lead coming to the white flag.
That enabled Jarrett to protect the low line and hold off Earnhardt. With Jarrett’s father Ned Jarrett in the CBS broadcast booth, it resulted on one of the most memorable calls in the sport’s history, with a father openly cheering on his son to win the Daytona 500.
As for Earnhardt, the Daytona 500 sent him home empty-handed again, a quest that eventually ended with his 1998 victory.
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