February 22, 1959 – The first Daytona 500

Since the inaugural running of the Daytona 500 on this day in 1959 the race has been widely regarded as the most important event on the annual NASCAR calendar, as it has been the season opener since 1982 and it carries the largest prize purse of any race. The running of the first race, originally named, “First Annual 500 Mile NASCAR International Sweepstakes at Daytona,” coincided with the opening of Daytona International Speedway, which was built by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. There were several lead changes in the first 22 laps until Fireball Roberts shot out front and led for 20 laps before having to pit. The race came down to the final 30 laps when Johnny Beauchamp driving a 1959 Ford Thunderbird and Lee Petty and his 1959 Oldsmobile duked it out. It came down to a literal photo finish. When the race was over NASCAR officials declared Beauchamp the winner, but Petty protested. After three days of reviewing photos and newsreel footage Bill France declared Petty the winner of the first Daytona 500. Lee Petty #42 and Johnny Beauchamp #73 battle on the last lap of the 1959 Daytona 500.