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Top 10 on-track fireworks in Daytona's summer event

July 03, 2014, David Caraviello,

From emotional victories to presidential visits, let's relive the best of the best

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The Daytona 500 carries with it the prestige of winning the sport's biggest race. But the annual summer event at Daytona International Speedway brings something else: fireworks, and not always above the track.

Indeed, the event now known as the Coke Zero 400 has always been a real firecracker, and not just in name. The shorter distance and prime-time start have only served to enhance the atmosphere of a race that for years was contested on Independence Day itself, with a late-morning green flag designed to avoid thunderstorms and allow drivers, crewmen and their families to enjoy an afternoon on the beach. It was a summer vacation and a race weekend rolled into one.

Those days may be over, but the July race at Daytona continues to deliver some of the best moments of each season. From furious finishes to spoilers to milestones overseen by the Commander in Chief, the 400 has compiled a catalogue of achievements capable of rivaling even its more heralded brethren from February. The next edition comes Saturday night, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. tries to become just the sixth driver to sweep both annual events on the 2.5-mile track.

Fireworks -- the kind that light up the sky after the checkered flag -- will be guaranteed. Others may very well spark on the track itself, ignited by heated conditions and a restrictor-plate race that could be someone's ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. More potentially combustible moments surely await in this firecracker of an event -- but until then, here are the top 10.


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10. Late night with Tony

He may never have won the Daytona 500, but Tony Stewart has long been a master of the track's summertime event. Of his four career victories in the 400, the most impressive was easily the one he recorded in a 2005 race that, because of rain, didn't start until late in the night. The green flag flew around 11 p.m. local time and the checkered fluttered at roughly 2 a.m., and in between Stewart led 151 laps from the pole to thoroughly dominate the event. Interstate 4 was still choked with post-race traffic as sunrise approached, but Stewart cruised home with a victory that would anchor his second championship run.

9. Elliott by a nose

There was nobody better than Bill Elliott in 1988, the year Awesome Bill claimed his championship. But on the way he had to weather a turbulent July race at Daytona, during a season in which restrictor plates became the standard at the 2.5-mile track. Six drivers -- Cale Yarborough, Alan Kulwicki and Benny Parsons among them -- were knocked out in a third-lap pileup, while Elliott worked his way up from a 38th-place qualifying spot. In the end it was Million Dollar Bill against Morgan-McClure driver Rick Wilson, who dove low off the final corner and edged ahead. But as he was so much of that year, Elliott was just too strong -- he moved to the high side, and in the final few hundred feet nosed out in front to win.

8. Lights and fire

The 1998 season marked a watershed moment for both NASCAR and Daytona, the latter of which completed a massive lighting project that allowed the track's summertime event to move under the lights. CBS was also slated to broadcast the event in prime time. But Central Florida was plagued that summer by rampant wildfires that would ultimately burn through half a million acres and lick at the edges of Daytona Beach itself, forcing NASCAR to postpone the event until a Saturday night in mid-October. Jeff Gordon led the final 38 laps to win over Bobby Labonte and solidify his hold on the championship standings, while night racing at Daytona got off to a promising, if somewhat delayed, start.

7. Furious finish

Jamie McMurray won twice in his rather short stay with Roush Fenway Racing, and both victories came on restrictor-plate tracks. But easily the most stirring came at Daytona in the summer of 2007, in a wheel-to-wheel battle against Kyle Busch with a whole pack of contenders right on their heels. With the preferred position on the inside and with his older brother Kurt pushing from behind, Busch seemed to have all the momentum on the final lap. "Kyle Busch is your guy right here," TNT analyst Kyle Petty said as Busch moved ahead off the last corner. That is, until much like Elliott almost two decades earlier, McMurray surged ahead in the final few feet to claim the victory by five thousandths of a second.

6. The unlikeliest sweep

The list of drivers who have swept both annual races at Daytona is loaded with legends like Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Jimmie Johnson -- and LeeRoy Yarbrough? Indeed, he added his name to that list in 1969 when he won seven times in a powerhouse car fielded by Junior Johnson. Yarbrough had passed Charlie Glotzbach on the final lap to win the 500, but in the 400 used a bit of mechanical wizardry from crew chief Herb Nab, who rerouted exhaust pipes from the side to the rear of the car to disturb the air and make it hard for anyone to draft off his driver. The ploy worked, and Yarbrough led 96 laps, and following the race NASCAR instituted a new rule mandating exhaust pipes be routed to the side.

5. The ultimate spoiler

Yarbrough was also part of another Daytona 400-miler that included a bit of rules tinkering, this one in 1966. Dodges had been slow in testing at the big track, so Yarbrough and Sam McQuagg each came to the Daytona race with a one-and-a-half-inch rear spoiler peeking up from the rear decklid of their cars. The innovation was a prominent topic of discussion during ABC's coverage of the event during "Wide World of Sports," and for the drivers, it paid off. Yarbrough, going 6 mph faster than he had in February, won the pole. Although Yarbrough went out with a suspension issue, the unheralded McQuagg surged to the front, and the ultimate spoiler led 126 laps en route to his only victory in NASCAR's premier series.

4. Sacks pulls a shocker

And yet the biggest upset in 400 history came two decades later, at the hands of a research and development driver. Greg Sacks was a modified standout from Long Island who only weeks earlier had struck a deal to run the race for DiGard Racing, which planned to use him in an R&D capacity with the goal of helping regular driver Bobby Allison. And yet it was Sacks who worked his way through the field in the 1985 race, though he was saddled with an inexperienced crew that cost him positions on every stop. But crew chief Gary Nelson had put a few mechanical tricks into the car, and for the final pit stop the vehicle was serviced by crewmen from several top teams. Sacks won by a whopping 23 seconds to earn his lone career victory, and record one of the biggest shockers NASCAR has ever seen.

3. Pearson plays possum

It simply didn’t get any better than Daytona in the early 1970s, when Richard Petty and David Pearson went at it in almost every race. The Silver Fox and the King finished first and second respectively in three consecutive Firecracker 400s from 1972-74, with Pearson winning them all. But his '74 triumph is the stuff of legend because of the way it unfolded, in vintage Silver Fox fashion that left even Petty snookered. Pearson led at the white flag, but then his Wood Brothers car slowed, allowing Petty to pass and move out to a seven-car lead. There was no problem -- Pearson just didn't want to leave himself open for a slingshot move. Pearson drafted back behind Petty and used the slingshot himself, passing the King in the final time through the tri-oval to win. A sly fox, indeed.

2. 'He was with me tonight'

The months after Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 were dark ones, full of necessary questions about how a seemingly invincible seven-time champion could have met his end. Along the way, there were a few moments of joyful relief, such as Steve Park winning for Dale Earnhardt Inc. at Rockingham and Kevin Harvick triumphing with Big E's old team at Atlanta. But nothing compared to the return to Daytona in July, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. surged from sixth to first over the final six laps to win the first race back at the track where his father had lost his life. Earnhardt climbed out of his car and thrust his hands skyward as his crew engulfed him. "He was with me tonight," he said, not needing to explain who. "I dedicate this win to him. No one else I could dedicate (it) to."

1. A President and a King

It wasn't just one of the biggest races of the year, it was one of the defining moments in NASCAR history -- the first time a sitting president would attend a race. Ronald Reagan gave the command to start the 1984 event, on July 4 no less, from Air Force One. The jet landed at the airport behind the track with the race in progress, and Reagan watched the dramatic finish from a VIP suite. With three laps remaining Doug Heveron crashed to bring out a caution, and the race came down to a sprint to the yellow. Richard Petty won a sheet-metal-scraping duel with Cale Yarborough, a few laps later claiming his 200th and final career victory under the yellow flag.

That afternoon, with the president on hand for a such a milestone, remains one of NASCAR's iconic moments. And it didn't end there -- Petty first went not to Victory Lane, but up to the press box to chat with the Commander in Chief. Reagan then accompanied Petty to Victory Lane, and even stuck around for a picnic lunch after the event. The car ultimately wound up in the Smithsonian. Petty would race for eight more seasons and never win again, but his 200th and final career victory transpired on a perfect summer day in Daytona that has since progressed from reality into legend.


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