The Daytona 500 has been the season-opening event for the NASCAR Cup Series since 1982. The event, held at Daytona Beach, Florida, since 1959 has been dubbed “the Great American Race.” (For information on the other major annual auto race, see the most exciting races in Indy 500 history.)
The race has been won by Richard Petty seven times, followed by Cale Yarborough with four victories. While some of driving’s best have enjoyed success at Daytona, however, the race has also witnessed spectacular crack-ups and tragedies.
In order to find the worst car wrecks in Daytona 500 history, 24/7 Tempo consulted videos from YouTube, Fox Sports, and various auto-racing media such as Motor Digest and various general-interest media to compile its list. There have been other wrecks at the Daytona track besides those during the famed 500 race, but we focused just on accidents that occurred during the Great American Race.
The Daytona 500 is one of America’s best-attended sports events. And while many go to appreciate the skills of the drivers motoring at speeds of nearly 200 mph, there are those who attend hoping to see “the big one” – a massive pileup of vehicles. Sometimes, though, the crashes have tragic results. A chain reaction of accidents in the 1961 race put Lee Petty, father of NASCAR star Richard Petty, in a coma for four days. And a terrible wreck in 2001 claimed the life of racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001. (Amateurs have tragic car wrecks far from any racing track too, of course. These are the worst car accidents in America.)
Pileups involving too many cars forced NASCAR to limit the number of vehicles. In addition, tragedies involving car fires forced the organization to require drivers to wear fire-retardant clothing and horrific wrecks also have prompted NASCAR to install protective nets in all its racing cars for the safety of drivers and spectators alike.
Crash in 1960
> Driver(s) involved: Junior Johnson, Ralph Earnhardt, and Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
One of the early “Big Ones”- major crashes in auto races – the Daytona Modified Sportsman Race had 73 cars lined up at the start of the race. Less than two minutes into the race, with future legends Johnson, Earnhardt, and Roberts in the field, the famed wreck occurred on the fourth turn of the first lap. It’s been called the worst wreck in NASCAR history, but amazingly there were no fatalities, just some minor injuries.
Crash in 1961
> Driver(s) involved: Lee Petty, Banjo Matthews, Johnny Beauchamp
A terrible accident ended the career of Lee Petty, the father of NASCAR legend Richard Petty. At the Daytona International Speedway, the field was running qualifying races used to determine the starting order for the 500. While leading the field, Banjo Matthews spun out, which started a chain reaction of accidents. Johnny Beauchamp clipped the back of Petty’s vehicle, sending both cars up the track. They hit a guardrail, went through it, and both cars left the track. The two cars became fiery wrecks. Both drivers survived, but Petty was in a coma for four days and in the hospital for four months.
Crash in 1971
> Driver(s) involved: Maynard Troyer
After only nine laps, Maynard Troyer lost control of his car on the second turn in what has been dubbed “the wildest one-car crash in NASCAR history.”. His Ford flipped 15 times before it came to rest right side up. He suffered a concussion and minor injuries and continued to race for several years afterward.
Crash in 1988
> Driver(s) involved: Richard Petty
In the 1988 running of the Daytona 500, Richard Petty was involved in a dangerous wreck. Auto racing’s “king” was coming out of a turn on lap 106, when he was bumped from behind by Phil Barkdoll. That sent him sliding sideways down the track where his car caught air underneath the vehicle, causing it to stand up on its nose. It then slid into the fence where it began rolling along the track. When what was left of Petty’s car finally landed, it was slammed by Brett Bodine, which sent it spinning out of control. Petty suffered temporary blindness from the incident, but was unharmed otherwise.
Crash in 1993
> Driver(s) involved: Rusty Wallace
Rusty Wallace was bumped from behind by two cars that had gotten tangled and were in the midst of spinning. The nudge was enough to send Wallace sideways. At that point, air got beneath his car and lifted him. He began flipping and rolling down the track. Wallace’s safety cage prevented him from sustaining serious injuries.
Crash in 1997
> Driver(s) involved: Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett
At the 1997 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was in a six-way fight for the lead with 12 laps to go when disaster struck. His Chevrolet scraped the backstretch wall by itself, Dale Jarrett’s car hit his, sending Ernhardt’s vehicle over on its roof. While he was in that position, Ernie Irvan slammed into him, causing the hood of Irvan’s Ford to separate and sail into the backstretch grandstand, injuring a few onlookers. Sitting in an ambulance, Earnhardt saw his car being prepared to get towed away, but he noticed that it still looked drivable – so he hopped out of the ambulance and into the car, drove it to the repair area, got it fixed, and returned to the race – finishing five laps behind.
Crash in 2001
> Driver(s) involved: Sterling Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart
Tragedy struck the Daytona 500 in 2001. On the final lap, as Dale Earnhardt was attempting to block the rest of the field from catching his son, who was contending for the win. Sterling Marlin hit Earnhardt on the driver’s side rear bumper, enough to send him up the track and right into the wall. The crash claimed his life. The same year, Tony Stewart’s Pontiac got batted around, leading to a 19-car accident.
Crash in 2003
> Driver(s) involved: Ryan Newman, Ken Schrader
Ryan Newman entered the 2003 season as the reigning NASCAR Rookie of the Year. However, an accident in the Daytona 500, the first race of the 2003 season, started the year off on the wrong foot. Newman was involved in a crash 56 laps into the race when his car was pushed into the wall by Ken Schrader. Both cars hit the wall and ended up in the infield, with Newman’s car becoming airborne and flipping several times before settling on its roof. The car was destroyed, but Newman walked away without any major injuries.
Crash in 2007
> Driver(s) involved: Clint Bowyer
As Kevin Harvick overtook Mark Martin in a photo finish to win the race in 2007, a series of accidents behind them led to Clint Bowyer’s Chevrolet skidding on its roof on fire as it crossed the finish line.
Crash in 2009
> Driver(s) involved: Joey Logano
Joey Logano, then only 18 years old, smashed into a newly added safety barrier on the inside of the track at a high rate of speed and then spun into the infield. The announcers were at a loss to explain how the accident occurred.
Crash in 2013
> Driver(s) involved: Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson was jockeying for position during the final laps at Daytona in 2013 when he was bumped from behind, sending his car into the catch fence around the track. The impact caused his car to disintegrate, and sent his engine block into the grandstands. Fortunately, the engine block missed spectators, but other debris injured race fans.
Crash in 2016
> Driver(s) involved: Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While driving at 195 mph and in fourth place at the 2016 running of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved down from the top of the track and nudged the car in front of him. It was enough to send him off the track and into a wall and eventually settled in the infield. In the same race, Danica Patrick, the premier female race car driver, was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet that went airborne, though she did not crash.
Crash in 2020
> Driver(s) involved: Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney, Corey LaJoie
Just one turn separated Ryan Newman from winning his second Daytona 500 in 2020 – a race that turned into a major car wreck. Ryan Blaney’s surge at the end of the race led to a collision with Newman, who spun back up the track and started flipping. As this was happening, Corey LaJoie slammed into him on his driver’s side and launched him farther down the track. Newman was hospitalized. In all, 19 drivers were involved in the crack-up.
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