Commentary

The ultimate NASCAR moments: Nos. 5-2

Countdown of the defining moments in NASCAR history, Nos. 5-2.

Updated: August 7, 2007, 3:22 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | Special to ESPN.com

ESPN The Magazine's Ryan McGee put together a panel of NASCAR experts, then penned a book about the 100 defining moments in NASCAR history. Below are excerpts of moments Nos. 5 through 2 from that book, "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments In Stock Car Racing History."

5. A Great American Race: Feb. 22, 1959
Bill France knew that for NASCAR to grow into a major league sport, it needed a major league venue. So once again he approached Daytona Beach (Fla.) city officials, this time with plans for a race track that would be "the world center of racing."

For 15 months, construction crews toiled in the muddy sand three miles inland from the old beach-and-road course. And on a sunny Sunday afternoon, 59 cars rolled onto the two-and-a-half-mile track for the first-ever Daytona 500.

Fans stood slack-jawed with disbelief for the entire 3-hour, 41-minute event. Anyone not staggered by the sheer speed was sent over the edge by the finish, when Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, and the lapped car of Little Joe Weatherly crossed the finish line three wide at 140 mph. Both Petty and Beauchamp rolled to Victory Lane, where Beauchamp was declared the winner.

Petty did what Petty did best -- he filed a protest. For three days, France's team examined photographs as they trickled in from around the country. Finally, at 6:00 p.m. on Feb. 25, thanks to film from Hearst Metrotone News of the Week, Petty was declared the winner by two feet and awarded the trophy quietly among a handful of friends and family. Among the proud kin was 21-year old son Richard, who had finished 57th in just his 11th NASCAR race.

4. Pearson In The Clutch: Feb. 15, 1976
Richard Petty and David Pearson raced against each other 550 times. The score: Petty 289-Pearson 261. In 63 of those races they finished 1-2: Pearson 33-Petty 30. They ranked 1-2 in wins, poles, and grandstand fights initiated.

At the 1976 Daytona 500, they were locked up again. On the final lap, Pearson led, with Petty in his slipstream. As they hit Turn 3, the STP Dodge flung alongside the Purolator Mercury, muscling into the lead as they rolled off Turn 4.

"Then we hit with a bang," Pearson remembers, "and we got to spinning."

Spinning directly toward the finish line, Petty nearly won backward, but both cars slid into the infield lawn about 100 feet shy of the checkers. Through a cloud of tire smoke, fans saw The King trying to refire his stalled engine, when suddenly the Silver Fox emerged from the billow, bumper plowing grass.

Amid the chaos of the crash, Pearson calmly had stood on the clutch, keeping his engine running. Now he was going to win the Daytona 500, running all of 20 miles per hour.

In Victory Lane, Petty shook Pearson's hand: "Sorry about that, David."

"That's OK, Richard," Pearson said. "I know it wasn't on purpose. Besides, it turned out all right."

"Yeah … for you."

3. "And There's A Fight!": Feb. 18, 1979
As the green flag fell on the rain-delayed 21st running of the Daytona 500, it did so in front of 16 million viewers, who had tuned in for the first live flag-to-flag coverage of the Great American Race.

They leaned forward as Donnie Allison took the white flag, with Cale Yarborough tucked in behind. They sat up in their La-Z-Boys as Donnie blocked Cale's slingshot move, hip-checking his rival into the infield grass. And they dropped their beers when Yarborough hung a hard right and slammed Allison into the Turn 3 wall.

Third-place A.J. Foyt, seeing the ruckus ahead, hesitated just long enough to allow Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip to slip by. As Petty rocketed across the line for his sixth Daytona 500 victory, CBS announcer Ken Squier looked back to Turn 3.

"And there's a fight!" Squier shouted, as cameras captured the action. "It's Allison and Yarborough!"

An Allison was throwing punches, but it wasn't Donnie. Big brother Bobby says he strolled over, "and that's when Cale commenced to beating on my fist with his face."

The following day, NASCAR issued a statement saying that it "would not tolerate such behavior." But hidden behind that memo was an office full of smiles, a reaction topped only in the CBS production truck.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is NASCAR.

2. Declaration Of Existence: Dec. 14, 1947
America was super-charged with optimism and enthusiasm after the great victory in World War II. Men and women had returned from Europe and the Pacific utterly unafraid of daring and intimately familiar with the capabilities of modern machinery.

From Florida to California, Texas to Wisconsin, rural weekends pulsated with the hum of bored-out street engines, racing on home-plowed dirt ovals. Stock car racing was hot, but shady promoters and a confusing alphabet of sanctioning bodies threatened to keep it an underground phenomenon.

Sensing a chance to seize power through planning, Bill France corralled 35 racers and track owners from around the nation into the Ebony Room of the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. At 1:00 p.m., the committee began to scribble on cocktail napkins as France declared, "Within our group rests the outcome of stock car racing in the country today. We have the opportunity to set it up on a big scale."

The men talked, argued, and scribbled some more, and on the third day, they emerged with a name, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, and a president, Bill France. Two months later, the new outfit was formally incorporated.

Time to go racing.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of ''ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: The 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History.''

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR