Johnny wins and Petty grins


59daytona500

After 500 miles on the freshly laid Daytona asphalt, Johnny Beauchamp wins in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. But then again, he didn’t. Lee Petty did.

Beauchamp would celebrate in Victory Lane a victory that wasn’t his, while Petty was left to protest the results. There was only one man in all of Daytona Beach who couldn’t be happier with the outcome, and he was “Big” Bill France. His ‘First Annual 500 Mile International Sweepstakes‘ at the newly opened Daytona International Speedway was a success. The question of who won would make the front pages of sports sections across the nation, giving him the kind of promotion he sought.

France would wait three days before announcing the winner, dragging it out for maximum effect. Between the drivers, Lee Petty knew he had won, sure he had edged the #73 Ford Thunderbird at the line. This was countered by Beauchamp, by claiming to have nosed ahead of the #42 Old’s at the very last moment. Two laps down and in fifth, Joe Weatherly added to the confusion as all three finished in a blur side by side by side. Early retiree Fireball Roberts, who watched the trio drive under the flag, added his opinion in saying Lee had undoubtably won the race. Nobody seemed to know the true result, not the drivers nor the fans. In the end, it took only one photo to settle the debate.

That image showed Petty as the clear winner, taking the flag by a margin of two feet, just as he had originally said. He was in the middle of both cars, with Weatherly up top and Beauchamp down below. For his efforts that afternoon, Petty would finally receive the winners cheque worth $19,050, and put his name in the record books as the first winner of the Daytona 500. This was Lee’s first win of the 2-race-old season, ending the year with a total of eleven victories. He went on to capture his third championship in 1959, and second in a row, having previously won in 1954 and 1958.

Lee’s son Richard also started the event in an Oldsmobile convertible, only his eleventh start in Grand National. The ’43’ would be on the young Richard’s door for the first time in the series, having first run the number in the 100-mile Convertible Series qualifier just two days prior, where he finished third. His day would end early on lap 8 after suffering a blown engine, finishing in 57th place out of 59 drivers. Of those 59 entrants, just over half would complete the race.

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