The first Daytona 500 was held on February 22, 1959 at Daytona International Speedway, when a field of 59 cars took the green flag for the start of the inaugural 200-lap race. A crowd of 41,000 was on hand to witness the beginning of a major chapter in the history of racing at Daytona.
The finish of the first race was too close to call, but Johnny Beauchamp went to Victory Lane and savored the celebration, even though the results were posted as "unofficial." Sixty-one hours later, there was a turn of events as Lee Petty was awarded the win in what appeared to be a dead heat between Petty and Beauchamp. A clip of newsreel footage helped to prove that Petty was the winner by a few feet, thus earning him a little over $19,000 for the win and becoming the first name etched onto the trophy named for Harley J. Earl, a famous General Motors designer and friend of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
Petty's son Richard burst on to the racing scene in the early 1960s and won his first Daytona 500 in 1964, leading for over 180 of the 200 laps on the way to his first victory on a super-speedway. He would win his second in 1966, the year before another racing legend -- Mario Andretti -- hoisted the trophy at Daytona Speedway.
The 1970s at Daytona opened with relative unknown Pete Hamilton claiming victory after a number of favorites dropped out of the race. Petty returned to win three of the next four races, and was the first driver in Daytona 500 history to win back-to-back years by taking the 1973 and 1974 editions. In 1976, Petty was leading on the last lap of the race before David Pearson passed him on the backstretch. Contact between the two cars resulting from Petty's attempt to pass on the final turn left both cars spinning onto the tri-oval grass. Petty couldn't restart his car but Pearson kept his from stalling and was able to slowly cross the finish line to win the only Daytona 500 victory of his career in one of NASCAR's best-ever finishes.
The 1979 race was the first Daytona 500 broadcast live on television for the duration, and it produced quite a show for viewers. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison were battling for the lead on the final lap but banged fenders and crashed in Turn 3, allowing Petty to hold off Darrell Waltrip within the trailing group to earn his sixth victory at Daytona.
The seventh victory for "The King" -- which represents the record number of wins by an individual driver -- came in 1981, when he used a fuel-only pit stop late in the race to outlast Bobby Allison, who would go on to lift the trophy the following year. Yarborough then won back-to-back races in 1983 and 1984 to bring his total number of wins at Daytona to four, before Allison notched his third career win in 1988.
Daytona offered one its biggest upsets in 1990. Dale Earnhardt, who had won almost everything at Daytona International Speedway except the Daytona 500, looked like he would finally break the losing streak. But after leading for some 150 laps on the day, Earnhardt's right rear tire failed on the final lap, causing him to lose pace and be passed by Terry Labonte and Derrick Cope, who would take first place in just his third Daytona 500 start.
Cope's win was the first of eight by Chevrolet vehicles in the 1990s, with Sterling Marlin and Jeff Gordon claiming two victories each during that span. Earnhardt would have to wait until 1998 for his lone Daytona 500 victory, winning in the third-fastest race in the event's history.
Sadly, one of the historic race's most memorable moments was the tragic passing of Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500. The seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion died on impact as his car slammed headfirst into a concrete retaining wall a few hundred yards from the finish line, as teammates Michael Waltrip and son Dale Jr. claimed the top two places that day. Waltrip captured the Harley Earl trophy again in 2003, while Earnhardt Jr. went on to win the 2004 race, six years to the day after his father won his only Daytona 500.
The 2007 Daytona 500 produced one of the most thrilling Daytona 500 finishes in the history of race. Kevin Harvick, who started seventh on the final green-white-checkered restart, nipped Mark Martin at the finish line to win by 0.020 seconds in the closest Daytona 500 finish since the advent of computer scoring in 1993.
For the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008, the Harley Earl trophy was plated in gold instead of silver and Ryan Newman won the race for his only victory during the 2008 season. Delays marked the next two races, with Matt Kenseth claiming the win in the 2009 event that was stopped with 48 laps to go. Jamie Mc Murray became champion for the first time in the 2010 Daytona 500, which took over six hours to complete.
Now known as "The Great American Race," which traditionally hosts a sellout crowd, the Daytona 500 offers the biggest total payout in prize money for any motorsports event in the United States, surpassing the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. The annual race's posted awards are now approaching $20 million, with the winner pocketing more than $1 million.