The Daytona 500 is a 200-lap, 500 mile (805 km) NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race held annually at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. It is widely considered to be NASCAR's most important and prestigious race, and has the largest purse, although it is equivalent to other races on the calendar for championship purposes. It is also the circuit's first race of the year; this phenomenon is virtually unique in sports, which tend to have championships or other major events at the end of the season rather than the start. Since 1995, U.S. television ratings for the Daytona 500 have been the highest for any auto race of the year, surpassing the traditional leader, the Indy 500. The event is also known as "The Super Bowl of NASCAR" and "The Great American Race."
The race is the direct successor of a race that was held on Daytona Beach itself; however, the Daytona 500 proper has been held at the Daytona International Speedway since its inaugural run.
Lee Petty, founder of a famous racing family whose most renowned member was his son Richard, won the first Daytona 500 on February 22, 1959 defeating Johnny Beauchamp in a highly unusual incident. Petty and Beauchamp were lapping the car of Joe Weatherly at the finish, when officials initially called Beauchamp the winner as the cars crossed the line. After reviewing photographs and video of the finish, on February 25, 1959, after three days of review, the call was reversed, and Petty won the first Daytona 500.
Richard Petty won the race a record seven times.
Qualifying is unique at Daytona for the 500: some teams must race their way into the Daytona 500 field, however, since 2005, all exempt teams (the top 35 teams of the previous year in owner points) are guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500. The first row is set by one round of qualifying, normally one week before the race. (Prior to 2003, two rounds; prior to 2001, three rounds) The remainder of the field is set by qualifying races (100 miles, 1959-1967, 125 miles, 1969-2004; 150 miles with two-lap overtime if necessary beginning in 2005 -- no races held in 1968 because of rain), with the top two cars not exempt advancing. After the exempt teams and top two non-exempt cars are added to the field, the top three non-exempt cars are added by fastest qualifing laps. A former Nextel Cup champion, if necessary, is added. Otherwise, the fourth fastest car is added to the field.
(Prior to 2005, after the top two cars were set, the top 14 cars in the qualifying races advanced to the field, and then between six (1998-2003), eight (1995-97, 2004), or ten (until 1994) fastest cars which did not advance from the qualifing race were added, and since the mid-1980's, between two and seven cars were added by previous year's points performance and or championship.)
It was the first 500-mile auto race to be televised live and in its entirety, when CBS aired it in 1979, and continued until 2000. Since 2001, the race has alternated between FOX and NBC under the terms of the six year, $2.48 billion NASCAR television contract from 2001 until 2006.
Fox will broadcast the race on its own starting in 2007 as part of NASCAR's new television package.A byproduct of both the track's 1998 lighting and the 2001 television package has been later start times. From 1979 until 2000, the race started at 12:15 pm. In 2005, the race ended at sunset for the first time in its history, as the race started at 2:30 pm and ended at sunset slightly after 6 pm, and in 2006, ended in near-complete darkness. The new 2:30 pm start time was intended for the convenience of West Coast fans, and there is talk the race may end after dark, thereby changing the race conditions even more as the race goes from day to dusk and then night, which will result in teams having to adjust setups for the transition, which has become an issue at more races in recent years.