Which Car Won the First Daytona 500?

The Great American Race has a long, storied history, and its roots run deep within the country. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a shock that a good ol’ American car won the first Daytona 500.

The race took place on Feb. 22, 1959. And the vehicles involved hardly resemble NASCAR’s next-gen cars. But just like many modern-day NASCAR races, the inaugural Daytona 500 had a flair for the dramatic.

Which driver won the first Daytona 500?

Three NASCAR cars, including Lee Petty's No. 42 Oldsmobile Super 88, head toward the finish line at the first Daytona 500 in 1959
Lee Petty, driver of the No. 42 Oldsmobile, races to the line against Johnny Beauchamp, driver of the No. 73 Holman Moody Ford, during the first 1959 Daytona 500. They are lapping Joe Weatherly, driver of the No. 48 car, at the finish line. | Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Lee Petty won the historic event, but he wasn’t the driver who ended up in the winner’s circle at the end of the day. If that name sounds familiar, it should. He is the father of legendary racer Richard Petty, who also competed in the first Daytona 500 but finished in 57th place after suffering engine problems.

The race came down to a photo finish between Johnny Beauchamp and Petty. Beauchamp’s No. 73 Ford Thunderbird took the bottom line, while Petty held the middle. Notably, Joe Weatherly’s No. 48 car was a lap down and had the high line above the racers competing for first place.

According to History, NASCAR CEO Bill France Sr. initially declared Beauchamp the winner. However, that outcome didn’t stand, as Petty protested the results. 

NASCAR reviewed photographs and newsreels of the finish, and it came to a new conclusion three days after the race. The organization overturned the results, stating that Petty edged out Beauchamp to take the checkered flag.

What car did Lee Petty drive in the inaugural Daytona 500?

Lee Petty sitting on the hood of his No. 42 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 before the start of the first Daytona 500
Lee Petty, driver of the No. 42 Oldsmobile, poses in front of his car before the first 1959 Daytona 500 race | Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

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It may not have received all the race-day glory, but Petty’s hardtop Oldsmobile Super 88 went down in the history books as the first-ever Daytona 500 winner.

Donning Petty’s famous No. 42, this Oldsmobile Super 88 lacked a sizeable sponsor on its hood. Instead, it sported a red triangular design over the top of the car’s white paint. Meanwhile, its side panels were plastered with small company logos.

The car also proudly displayed “315 H.P.” on each side of the hood – a reference to the 315-hp V8 that rested underneath it.

NASCAR’s stock cars were surprisingly similar to production models back in 1959. The sport had a “homologation” rule, meaning that a model had to be available to the public and have met a set sales threshold to be eligible to compete.

Retail 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 models were available in several body styles. These included sedans, coupes, station wagons, and convertibles. Meanwhile, the powerful ‘Rocket’ V8 came standard on every Super 88.

There’s not much ‘stock’ left in today’s stock cars

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Much has changed since 1959 in the world of autosports. For instance, Lee Petty’s Oldsmobile Super 88 wouldn’t have a chance in the 2021 Daytona 500.

As you’d expect, you can’t use a modern NASCAR vehicle as a daily driver. These cars still utilize a V8 engine, but the powerplants are much more potent than in the past.

NASCAR mandates two different horsepower packages for its Cup Series cars, depending on the racecourse. For example, its vehicles will use a 550-hp V8 for the 2021 Daytona 500. However, race teams will have to switch it up with a 750-hp V8 the following week for the Daytona Road Course.

But while the cars look and perform differently than they did during the 1959 Daytona 500, the sport still has the same dramatic spirit. Many NASCAR fans are just crossing their fingers that they’ll witness another exciting photo finish – à la Petty and Beauchamp.