Richard Petty comes from behind to win the 21st annual Daytona 500, after leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crash into a wall during the final lap of the race. Allison and Yarborough then began fighting on the infield, an altercation broadcast on live television. The race helped popularize NASCAR racing at a national level.
Richard Lee Petty was the son of legendary NASCAR driver Lee Petty, who won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. That same year, Richard Petty was named NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year. He won his first Daytona 500, considered the “Super Bowl of NASCAR,” in 1964.
On February 18, 1979, Petty was vying for his sixth Daytona 500 victory. His come-from-behind win–which came after a crash took out Allison and Yarborough, who were in first and second place respectively–ended a frustrating 45-race personal losing streak.
The race also proved to be a milestone for NASCAR: For the first time ever, it was being televised live, flag-to-flag, and it received huge ratings, helped in part by the fact that the East Coast was experiencing a snowstorm that day and people were home watching TV. The race also marked a significant turning point in NASCAR’s transformation from a regional sport popular primarily in the South, to a national sport with a broad audience.
Later that same year, Petty won his seventh and final Winston Cup championship. He won his seventh and final Daytona 500 in 1981.
Petty, nicknamed “The King” and considered by many to be the greatest driver in NASCAR history, retired from racing after the 1992 season with a total of 200 wins. Petty’s son Kyle and his grandson Adam also became NASCAR drivers. Adam Petty died at age 19 in an accident on May 12, 2000, at the New Hampshire International Speedway.