The Monaco Grand Prix. Baja 1000. 24 Hours of Le Mans. Indianapolis 500. Dakar Rally. Epic gladiator contests of combustion and fury, renown in motorsports lore as the greatest races on Planet Earth. But none come close to the unbridled speed that you’ll find every February at the Daytona International Speedway for the greatest race on the NASCAR calendar: the Daytona 500.
When it opened in 1959, the Daytona Speedway blew minds with its absurdly huge 31-degree banks, unheard of at the time, and 3,800-foot front straight capable of stirring cars to dizzying 200 mph-plus speeds. It was the first race ever broadcast live from start to finish in 1979, and the contest was such a widely viewed spectacle that it catapulted NASCAR into the highest echelons of American sport — and only three years later it became the inaugural race of the stock car season.
On Sunday, February 17, the 61st running of the Daytona 500 will usher in the 2019 season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. All eyes will be on that 2.5-mile track on the balmy Florida coast, and no one’s more eager for the green flag to wave than last year’s winner Austin Dillon, who hopes to repeat the biggest victory of his career.
“It's a magical place because of the history, and the numbers that go with it,” says Dillon of the 500, a coliseum of motorsports with over 100,000 permanent seats. “It seems like every year there's a new storyline going into Daytona that creates something magical.”
Last year the storyline was clear: it was the 20-year anniversary of when Dale Earnhardt, considered by many the greatest NASCAR racer ever, won the epic race. And Dillon, who also races the legendary #3 Dow car for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), wanted to claim the checkered flag worse than any contest he’s ever competed in.
“Leading up to the race we all talked about how amazing it would be if I won,” continues Dillon in a thick southern drawl. “Then we were able to accomplish it.”
For the North Carolina-born driver the moment takes extra significance as RCR is in his blood. Its founder, the eponymous Richard Childress, happens to be his grandpa.
“It's so cool looking back at the pictures of me in Victory Lane with Dale. And then, 20 years later, I'm standing there holding the trophy up myself. It was definitely a dream come true.”
As the Childress clan owns a second home nearby, Dillon has been attending the 500 since he was a little kid. And the track has offered wondrous highs and terrible lows, including that tragic day in 2001 where the Daytona 500 claimed the life of his hero Earnhardt, "The Man in Black", on the race’s last lap.
“I've seen the highs and lows there, myself,” he recalls. “I've won an Xfinity race, then the next day in the July Fourth race I tore down the fence. And then a couple years later, I go and win the 500. So I’ve had some amazing memories there, good and bad.”
Despite the turbulent peaks and valleys of most professional racers, Dillon’s ascent has been swift and determined. ‘The Ace’, as he's known, won Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2010, and claimed the Truck Series championship the following year.
The next season, in 2012, he won Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and in 2013 took that championship as well. It’s clear Dillon is as accustomed to racing as he is to winning. And he’s eager to repeat his victory this weekend in his #3 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
You might wonder, though, for a guy who’s competed in hundreds of races across America and claimed numerous titles and trophies in his career, why the magic of Daytona seems like it separates itself from all the rest. For Dillon, as well as most stock car fans, the race is as unique as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series itself.
“When you go to the 500, the day we wake up to go race it feels like the whole world stops and watches you. And you feel like that when you're there,” he explains.
“I've been to the Super Bowl, it's an amazing feeling, and it's similar to that: you walk there and you feel like everybody's eyes are on you, the entire world. Everybody's stopping to watch what's going to take place that day, at Daytona, down there in Florida.”
DAYTONA 500 BUCKET LIST
Trying to cure your Super Bowl hangover? Looking for a fix to your sports-watching boredom before March Madness? We recommend attending the most badass event in motorsports and a bucket list spectacle for any sports fan: NASCAR’s season-opening DAYTONA 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway Feb. 17 (DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com), when the world’s 40 best drivers vie for stock car racing’s ultimate prize.
Austin Dillon, the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, is the defending race winner. He attended The Great American Race as a fan and to follow his grandfather and team owner, Richard Childress, who helped guide the NASCAR Hall of Fame career of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., who first made the No. 3 Chevrolet famous by winning six of his record-tying seven series championships piloting it.
There are plenty of reasons it’s worth a weekend trip to experience this institution of American sport:
1. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota stock cars inches away from each other going 200+ MPH is a sight that needs to be seen in person—A gargantuan crash or unbelievably ballsy maneuver can happen in a split-second
2. NASCAR provides fans unrivaled up-close access
- Attendees can walk around on the track prior to the race, sign the start/finish line and get up close to the drivers in the garage area where teams prepare the cars.
- With a special ticket, you can even watch the race from pit road or many of the hospitality areas within the race track.
3. Daytona International Speedway is one of the most massive state-of-the-art sporting facilities on the planet
- Daytona International Speedway itself is a sight to see, even without the roar of engines and danger looming at every corner.
- “The World Center of Racing” seats 100,000+ fans, so think of the viewing experience as an even rowdier version of an SEC Football game.
4. You can bring in your own cooler with food and drinks
- Fans can continue the tailgate (did we mention there’s FREE parking?) into the race by bringing in their own coolers with food and drinks (alcohol is acceptable) at NO charge.
5. The area has plenty of warm-weather tourist activities
- The daily February temperature in Daytona ranges from 70-85 degrees, perfect for those trying to get away from the snow. In addition to the racing, Daytona is home to many typical tourist activities, including golf, beach visits and boating. If you go with your family, you can even take them down the highway to Disney World.
6. There is a vibrant nightlife scene during the week
- The party doesn’t end at the track. During DAYTONA 500 week, the town is known for its lively nightlife scene.
7. The event is surrounded by pageantry and entertainment
- In addition to the racing, there’s plenty of pre-race pageantry around the DAYTONA 500. It features a high-octane military flyover from the famed Thunderbirds, a pre-race concert on the front stretch, glitzy driver introductions and appearances by plenty of celebrity guests. Past attendees include Matthew McConaughey, Kate Upton, Jon Bon Jovi and Peyton Manning.