After what felt like one of the shortest offseasons in recent memory, The Great American Race is upon us once again. While the Super Bowl of stock car racing would imply that only the best of the best could win, it’s still an auto race and anything can happen. Over the last 60 years the Daytona 500 has seen its share of upstarts convert with an upset victory, and they’re no less deserving than wins produced by the marque teams and drivers, taking home the Harley J. Earl trophy.
Let’s take a look back at some of the most surprising wins and great storylines of upset victories at The World Center of Racing.
1963: Tiny Lund
DeWayne “Tiny” Lund was anything but small in stature or courage. The Korean War veteran earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory on the largest stage.
How he got the ride is another story in heroics. A sportscar race used to be part of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, and 1961 winner Marvin Panch was driving a Maserati powered by a Ford engine. Panch was involved in an accident in the race and his car was engulfed in flames and he was unable to extricate himself. Lund happened to be watching the scene unfold and jumped into action. He scaled the fence and pulled a severely burned Panch from the wrecked exotic.
Panch insisted that Lund fill in for him in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Mercury for the 500. Lund managed to stretch out a win on fuel mileage, as Fred Lorenzen had to make a late race pit stop. In addition to the winner’s trophy, he was also awarded the Carnegie Medal of Honor for saving Panch’s life.
1964: Richard Petty
I know what you’re thinking; how is The King with his seven Daytona 500 wins an upset winner? Given the teething problems with the new 426 Hemi engine, it was a miracle they made it all 500 miles.
While Richard Petty won many races before the 1964 season, the victories occurred at the usual suspects of short tracks that made up the series at the time: Martinsville Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, South Boston Speedway and the like. For 1964, the Chrysler corporation was intent on making Mopar the brand to beat on the new high-banked superspeedways that were set to become a fixture in the sport. The initial block castings had a metallurgical flaw, which required all its existing engines to be scrapped for new blocks. It wasn’t until January that the factory had enough engines on hand to start distributing them. This was at a time when there weren’t massive 300-employee conglomerate race teams like there are today.
Petty would go on to win his first superspeedway race, lapping the field and leading a 1-2-3 finish for Plymouth en route to his first championship.
1967: Mario Andretti
While Mario Andretti may be synonymous with the Indianapolis 500, he just so happened to win as many Daytona 500s. In 1967, though, that wasn’t exactly a sure thing.
Driving the No. 11 Ford for Holman-Moody, Andretti was privy to the political soap opera that was Ford’s racing program during the 1960s. His engine was notably down on power compared to the other Fords, forcing him to run the car looser to make up some of that lost speed. During the race, Andretti dominated up until the final pit stop. The crew had purposely pitted the car slowly, waiting until the other Ford of Lorenzen exited the pits before they dropped the jack. No matter, it just provided additional motivation for him to chase down their golden boy.
It would be Andretti’s only win in NASCAR competition – the only driver to win in NASCAR, the NTT IndyCar Series and Formula 1.
1970: Pete Hamilton
When Plymouth unveiled its counterpart to the winged Dodge Daytona, it was with the sole purpose of luring Petty away from Ford and back to Plymouth. While the No. 43 Superbird is as iconic of a racecar as there is, it was the Petty Enterprises team car driven by the Dedham, Mass. driver, who bore a striking resemblance to another northeastern driver, Ricky Craven. Petty’s No. 43 bird blew up just seven laps into the race. Pete Hamilton, who signed to drive the No. 40 Plymouth just a few weeks earlier, dueled with David Pearson over the final 20 laps, the only two cars on the lead lap. Hamilton’s winged warrior got the best of the Silver Fox that day and set the stage for another pair of wins later that season, both at Talladega Superspeedway.
1983: Cale Yarborough
A former winner and three-time champion who is an underdog? What if I told you that the competition that had spent weeks in the wind tunnel massaging the bodies of their Thunderbirds and Monte Carlo SSs, got beat by the show car parked on display at the local burger joint?
When Cale Yarborough lost control of his No. 28 Monte Carlo en route to a 203 mph qualifying lap after he caught a Gale-force wind gust in the middle of turn 4, it was curtains for the primary car as it flew through the air, tumbled, smacking the roof and the wall. The Harry Rainer team was forced to pull a Pontiac LeMans that was on display at a Hardee’s restaurant down the road and turn it into a superspeedway car. The narrow profile of the LeMans made it more than competitive, and Yarborough was able to pull off the win with a last-lap slingshot on Buddy Baker to win.
1990: Derrike Cope
While it’s one of the most memorable upset Daytona 500 victories, it’s also one that give Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans heartburn to this day. Having dominated the largest race that always seemed to avoid him, Earnhardt was comfortably leading on the final lap, entering turn 3. A piece of bell housing had broken off Geoff Bodine’s car ahead of him and he ran over it, shredding the left rear tire. Having just lost the 1989 championship by 16 points, Earnhardt did a miraculous job of saving the car and making a bad day potentially worse.
Legendary crew chief Buddy Parrott had the Whitcomb Racing No. 10 team run up front all day. On the final pit stop, Parrott lowered the rear spoiler even more to give him a little less drag to try and compete with the faster No. 3 for the win. Cope held off champions Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott coming to the checkered flag for his first career victory. He would win one more race later that season at Dover Motor Speedway.
1993: Dale Jarrett
The Dale and Dale show marked Dale Jarrett’s second career victory, and first for the Joe Gibbs Racing team. It was an upset for a new team that was using leased engines which while commonplace today, was not something that teams that won or competed for championships would have done. With his brother-in-law Jimmy Makar as crew chief, he was cheered on to victory by his father Ned Jarrett in one of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history.
2001: Michael Waltrip
The darkest day in the history of the Daytona 500 was supposed to be Michael Waltrip’s ultimate celebration. Having finally overcome the struggles of over a decade of going winless in the Cup Series, Waltrip finally had a team and owner who believed in him. The No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet was a force all week at Daytona, and Waltrip ran the perfect race. With drafting assistance from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip finally ended his streak of 462 races without a win. Waltrip won a second Daytona 500 in 2003.
2010: Jamie McMurray
If Waltrip could end a 462-race winless streak, then Jamie McMurray should also be able to use Daytona to end a winless streak as well. He did just that in July 2007, ending a 166-race winless drought after winning in just his second start in 2002.
During the 2000s, McMurray emerged quietly as one of the best restrictor-plate drivers in the series. After it was well known he wouldn’t be back with RFK Racing after the 2009 season, he still went out and won late in the season at Talladega. In 2010 he returned where it all began eight years earlier with Chip Ganassi Racing.
McMurray didn’t even have a ride until January; his win in the Daytona 500 helped revive his career in what would be his best season ever winning the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He narrowly missed winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May which would have given him three of the biggest four races in the series in the same season.
2011: Trevor Bayne
Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Daytona 500 win will live forever as one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport. The Wood Brothers being one of the most revered and storied organizations in the history of NASCAR had gone winless since Bristol Motor Speedway in 2002, and had relegated itself to a part-time team, purchasing engines and bodies from RFK.
A freshly-repaved Daytona surface coupled with the advent of tandem drafting saw the No. 21 car getting pushed by Bobby Labonte, with a fast-closing Carl Edwards and David Gilliland off of turn 4. Edwards was unable to mount a challenge to pass, and Bayne, having just turned 20 years old the day before, won the Daytona 500 in his very first series start there.
2021: Michael McDowell
It’s hard to feel nostalgic about something that happened three years ago, but Michael McDowell winning the Daytona 500 is still a pretty big deal. The No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team has been a mainstay of the series for over a decade now. The poster child for small teams that continue to compete and slowly build year over year have always made the most of its opportunities, particularly at Daytona and Talladega.
When Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano collected each other in a fiery crash in turn 3, McDowell in the No. 34 Ford navigated the melee and emerged as the winner in his 358th career start for FRM, the third win as an organization in 16 years.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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