After numerous frustrating finishes, Tony Stewart finally won at NASCAR’s most famous track. Stewart dominated the rain-delayed Pepsi 400 last year, but still needed a dramatic four-wide pass to move to the front, then pulled away on a restart with nine laps left to seal his first Nextel Cup victory in 14 starts at Daytona International Speedway. “Winning this race at the Daytona 500 or at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the best win a driver could ever have” Stewart said. But Stewart will settle for this for now, he celebrated by climbing the fence into the flag stand to claim the checkered flag. It was his second consecutive victory and showed that the 2002 series champion can still be a contender. He started from the pole, led a race-record 151 of 160 laps, and moved to third in the standings Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, but the history of auto racing at Daytona goes back much farther than that. In 1936, the precursor to today’s Daytona 500 was born on a course that went down 1.5 miles of highway.
William H.G. France, a mechanic and racer who’d moved south from Washington, D.C., eventually took over the job of running the beach races on the second of two courses used for those events. In 1947, he presided over a meeting at Daytona’s Streamline Hotel where NASCAR was born.
A decade later, France began working on his showplace. “Big Bill” France was building it, he insisted on 31-degree banking in the corners. That’s as steep as he could make the turns and still keep the machines putting down the asphalt from tipping over.
When drivers gathered for the first Daytona 500, it was an eye-popping experience. Drivers were more accustomed to half-mile dirt tracks and saw the 1.366-mile paved track at Darlington.
Bob Welborn ran 140.121 mph to win the pole for the first Daytona 500, and Lee Petty won in a photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. It was at Daytona International Speedway where Junior Johnson discovered that if he tucked his car right behind another one, he could go faster than he could run by himself. And drafting became a part of the sport.
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