NASCAR’s superspeedways have some of the fastest average speeds in motorsports, and the Daytona 500 is historically the very best it has to offer.
Though the Great American Race has always been flat-out, hard-knuckled competition, there has never been a greater embodiment of the concept of pure, uninterrupted speed than the 1980 Daytona 500.
When Buddy Baker crossed the line under caution after leading a staggering 143 of 200 laps, the average speed read 177.602 mph, completely shattering the 1972 record of 161 mph set by AJ Foyt. The record still stands today and will probably never be broken given the current state of pack racing and the use of tapered spacers.
The win came in Baker’s 18th attempt, the longest tenure until Dale Earnhardt won it in 1998 in his 20th try. Much like the experience Earnhardt would come to have in the years following, Baker had lost the Daytona 500 in nearly every conceivable way despite being a consistent player for superspeedway wins.
Baker won the Daytona 500 pole in 1969 and 1973 yet never came close to winning in either. Despite winning the first-ever Busch Clash and the pole in 1979’s 500, Baker fell out of the event with ignition problems.
But in 1980, Baker rolled into Daytona International Speedway with the famed Rainier-Lundy Racing “Gray Ghost,” an Oldsmobile 442 built by legendary crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson that has since become renowned for its speed.
Baker easily won the pole and was exceptionally confident in the car, but he was somewhat melancholic due to his prior luck.
“You begin to wonder if it’s you or maybe you’re not supposed to win at this particular racetrack,” Baker told CBS’ Ken Squier. “But this happens to almost everybody in racing. They have one racetrack that they have a lot of problems winning at.
“But eventually, I’ll win here. A win at Daytona is the most important, and I’m still young enough — I’ve got years to do it. But I believe that, this year, I have the best chance that I’ve ever had.”
Baker, who was 39 years old at the time, was the biggest story heading into the race, and his positive outlook would foreshadow success. Yet the mood heading into the event was anything but positive.
Late model driver Benny “Ricky” Knotts passed away following a crash off of the frontstretch in the first twin-125 qualifying race while attempting to make it into his first-ever NASCAR start. The Michigan native was 28 years old.
Neil Bonnett, the youngest member of the Alabama Gang at the time, went on to win the qualifier while Donnie Allison won the second. The win didn’t matter for Allison, though, because he qualified on the front row with Baker. He was looking for redemption on year later from the now-famous end of the 1979 500 that saw him fight with Cale Yarborough after a crash on the last lap.
Other big stories going into 1980 included Clash winner Earnhardt returning for his second attempt at the 500 with Rod Osterlund. Dave Marcis entered the race despite broken ribs from a crash in the Sportsman 300 (now the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Daytona 300) the day prior.
Janet Guthrie was starting her final Daytona 500, driving one of only a handful of Chevrolets in the race. Most teams affiliated with General Motors ran Oldsmobiles at faster tracks, owing to the superior aerodynamics of the 442.
It was Terry Labonte‘s second 500 and Sterling Marlin‘s first, courtesy of his father Clifton “Coo Coo” Marlin allowing a driver change after Sterling did not qualify in. Kyle Petty, Lake Speed and JD McDuffie also missed the show. Petty was attempting to enter his first 500. 26 cars failed to make it into the 42-car field.
Those that were fortunate enough to make it in rolled off of pit road following a lengthy warming of the cars because of the chilly February air that brought temperatures down to 49 degrees Fahrenheit.
With the drop of the green flag, Baker took off but was matched by Allison, who ended up leading the first lap.
Baker eventually regained the lead as the third lap began. Bonnett, Richard Petty and Yarborough made up the rest of the top five and would continue to do so in the early running.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt was buried in the field due to a 32nd-place start following engine troubles in the qualifiers, but he quickly set about dicing through the field.
While Baker, Bonnett and Allison exchanged the lead, speeds within the first 25 miles were beyond 195 mph. Daytona always puts a tremendous amount of stress on equipment, and it was not long until cars began to fall out of the race. It began with Harry Gant having engine issues, and he would be far from the last. Unfortunately for the teams, engine changes during races were banned starting in 1980.
Buddy Arrington and Darrell Waltrip were the next to go due to engine failure. Waltrip was a heavy favorite to win after finishing runner-up to Richard Petty the year prior. He started in seventh and was running in third when the smoke began bellowing from his Gatorade No. 88.
Waltrip had won the first race of the season at Riverside International Raceway, but he could not repeat the success at the other end of the country.
By the time Waltrip pulled down pit road, Earnhardt had nearly infiltrated the top 10 and Allison had began to fall back. By lap 21, Allison was an entire lap down and would never be in contention again due to a later oil-pan leak.
Baker continued to lead the race with now only Yarborough, Richard Petty and Bonnett in tow. John Anderson, a surprising frontrunner, ran with the leaders until eventually falling back.
To that point, the race had ran smoothly, but speeds would be brought down abruptly due to the first caution following the first round of green flag pitstops. Chuck Bown and Kevin Housby spun out of turn 2 to bring it out.
Baker led the restart on lap 40, followed by Yarborough, Bonnett, Joe Millikan and Richard Petty. Restarting in sixth, this was a big break for Earnhardt.
The green flag dropped once again, and Earnhardt passed Richard Petty to enter the top five for the first time. Now the drivers could finally settle in for more high-speed, green-flag racing, right?
Wrong! Just as Baker and Yarborough broke away from the rest of the field, the third caution flew. This time it was debris caused by a brakeless Brooks brushing the wall when he was unable to stop for a slower car. With that, eight drivers had retired from the event.
On lap 51, the race returned to green-flag form with Bonnett in the lead. Baker trailed the lead pack due to a second trip down pit road for left-side tires. Richard Petty and Bonnett fought for the lead over the next few laps until Baker passed five cars in a single lap, including an impressive three-wide pass for the lead.
For the next 50 laps, the leaders would exchange the lead in an impressive battle for dominance. Eventually, Yarborough, Baker and Earnhardt broke away from the rest. The Mercuries were fast, but the clear winners were the Oldsmobiles.
Yarborough dropped out on lap 84 after losing high gear following the second round of pitstops. This would have left Baker and Earnhardt as leaders if not for Bobby Allison. Demonstrating the long life of the Goodyear tires of the time, Allison completely skipped the pitstop cycle to take the lead.
The race’s average speed was so high that by halfway, the race was back into record-breaking territory thanks to the long green-flag runs. Eventually, Baker caught Bobby Allison on raw speed with Earnhardt in his draft.
Meanwhile, Richard Petty fought Bonnett for fourth, and battles would rage on until lap 109 when the fourth caution came out due to Marcis spinning from eighth and crashing with Yarborough. Marcis continued but, like Yarborough, was now out of the running.
With the green back out, the drivers were treated to an exceptionally long run that went all the way to the final caution. Richard Petty fell out of the race on lap 161 after slipping his clutch during a pit-road altercation that saw crew chief Dale Inman’s foot run over by Bonnett.
Baker and Earnhardt spent the rest of the race outrunning Bonnett and Bobby Allison. On the final round of pit stops, the Mercuries of Bonnett and Bobby Allison did have a chance, however, when the No. 15 crew sent Allison out in second with a quick two-tire stop. Baker took only fuel and came out on top while Earnhardt had to make a second trip down pit road thanks to a loose wheel. It’s OK though. All Earnhardt would have to do is wait for 18 more years to finally get his Daytona 500.
It was then Baker’s race to lose as he sped toward the finish. With the freshest tires, Bobby Allison was in the best position on paper, but Baker was simply too quick. Once the caution flew on lap 199, Baker came out of turn 2 with a hand raised in the air and a huge smile across his face. He had finally done it — he was a Daytona 500 champion.
Nineteen cars had retired by the end, nearly joined by Bonnett, whose engine suspiciously blew on the final lap. Luckily, 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Don Whittington was there to give Bonnett a push, and he was still able to finish third, the first car one lap down.
To this day, the 1980 Daytona 500 is the fastest Daytona 500 ever run. It was a historic day for racing as a whole and the first time a NASCAR driver had won over $100,000 for a single event, with Baker earning $102,175. 1980 was the final year before the rulebook mandated the cars be downsized to a 110-inch wheelbase, and after that, the Daytona 500 would never be the same.
Baker went on to win two more races in his career, both at superspeedways, and was in the Hoss Ellington No. 1 car following 1980. Earnhardt took the points lead from Waltrip following the 500 and went on to win his first championship of seven. He became the first modern-era driver to take it in their sophomore season.
While the 1980 Daytona 500 may not be remembered for big crashes or great racing, the accomplishments and feats of Baker and Wilson in the race have stood the test of time. The dominance of the Gray Ghost is remembered as an embodiment of NASCAR as a whole, defined by pure, uninterrupted speed.
About the author
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.