With the release this week of a highly-revamped schedule for 2020, we now know that another NASCAR tradition will come to an end next year.
Since 1959, one year after the Daytona International Speedway opened, the 2.5-mile facility has hosted a race in conjunction with July 4th or a date somewhere close to it every year except one—the 1998 race was postponed by wildfires that burned out of control all across Florida, but more on that later.
From 1959 to 1987, the race was held on July 4th every year regardless of the day of the week on which the holiday fell. Then starting in 1988, it was run anywhere from July 1 to July 7 depending on the date of the closest Saturday to the Independence Day holiday.
Now the second Daytona date of the year will move to Saturday, August 29, 2020, meaning that the races at “The World Center of Racing” will now open and close NASCAR’s 26-race regular season. It will begin with the traditional Daytona 500 date on Sunday, February 16, and end down by the sea in late August.
“Racing in Daytona—particularly in the summer under the lights—never fails in delivering intense and unpredictable action,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “There is no question this venue will create some incredible drama as drivers make one last push for a playoff spot.”
While NASCAR is to be applauded for making a bold move to bring a much-needed spark to a sport whose battery is currently at low charge, it will tug at the heart strings of long-time race fans to see another one of the “sacred” dates of racing fall by the wayside.
There will be Independence Day racing action, with the annual Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway moving to a July 5 date. But somehow that doesn’t feel like that will be quite the same.
For many years, the Firecracker 400 as it was aptly named was one of the most unique events in all of racing. It was always on July 4th, and it always started early in the day so the fans could see some good racing and still hit the beautiful Daytona beaches before sunset.
Over the years, they’ve also seen some of the milestones of NASCAR history in this event, including legend Fireball Roberts winning three of the first five, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough winning four each, A.J. Foyt posting the first of seven NASCAR wins in his career in 1964, and the 25th of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 26 career victories in 2015.
Here’s some of the other magic moments and interesting trivia from more than 50 years of July 4th week racing at Daytona:
- FIRST-TIME WINNERS: Besides Foyt, eight other drivers have posted their first career wins and for three of them the only wins of their NASCAR careers. Sam McQuagg (1966), Greg Sacks (1985), Jimmy Spencer (1994), John Andretti (1997), Greg Biffle (2003), David Ragan (2011), Aric Almirola (2014) and Erik Jones (2018) are those other first-time winners, and for McQuagg, Sacks and Jones, it was or is their only career win.
- BILL’S BIG COMEBACK: On July 2, 1988, Bill Elliott started 38th in a 42-car field and charged through to win the race by a mere 3 feet over Rick Wilson. It was one of two career victories “Awesome Bill” had in this race and one of four at Daytona overall.
- WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: For more than a year, Daytona officials had been hyping the 1998 Pepsi 400 as it had come to be called as the first event to be staged at night under the track’s newly installed lights. But Mother Nature had other plans. As race week arrived, wildfires burned out of control across Florida and even in Volusia County where the track is located. The fires got so close the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that those gathered in a NASCAR boardroom for a late-night meeting on July 1 could see the glow of a nearby fire on a building next to the Speedway. Driver Dale Jarrett recalled flying into the Daytona Airport, located near the track’s backstretch and not believing what he saw. “Smoke was everywhere,” Jarrett told the News-Journal. “Coming into Daytona I remember the pilot saying, ‘We aren’t sure what we will see when we go down into this.’ “When we left there the next day, it was amazing to see all that burning. The amount of smoke was just incredible.” Daytona officials wisely postponed the race until October 17, 1998, and Jeff Gordon posted the second of his three wins in the event that night.
- EARNHARDT’S EMOTIONAL DAY: On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR fans and the entire sporting world lost the legend, Dale Earnhardt, on a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. On July 7, the circuit returned to track for the first time since that fateful day and, in storybook fashion, Dale Jr. dominated and put the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy in Victory Lane. Dale Jr. led 116 of the race’s 160 laps and came home just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip, the reverse order of finish from that year’s Daytona 500. “If they make any kind of movie relative to my life, it’ll probably be about that win,” Earnhardt said in a Daytona Appreci88ion video celebrating his career as he approached retirement in 2017. “It was just hard to believe – too good to be true.”
- NAME GAME: The Independence Day race featured some form of Firecracker in its name from 1959 to 1988. It was the Firecracker 250 from 1959-62, the Firecracker 400 from 1963-86 with the exception of 1969, 1971 and 1973 when it was called the Medal of Honor Firecracker 400, and the Pepsi Firecracker 400 in 1985, 1987 and 1988. After that it became a battle of the cola giants as it was simply the Pepsi 400 from 1989-2007 then it became the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola from 2008-11, and the Coke Zero 400 from 2012-17. It was called the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last year and will be again this year when it is run on July 6. For what it’s worth, the Firecracker 400 will always be the greatest name any race will ever have.
The changes to the schedule seem to make sense from a business standpoint as well as a historical one. On the historical side, Darlington Raceway and it’s Throwback Weekend, which is the best promotion going in the sport at this time, becomes the first race of the Monster Energy Series Cup playoffs, replacing Las Vegas Motor Speedway which slides to the fourth race.
Also, the famed .0533-mile bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway moves into the playoff schedule as the third race, replacing Dover International Speedway. And finally, the .0526-mile paperclip of Martinsville Speedway becomes the final elimination race (ninth overall) to decide the four drivers who will now race for the championship at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
The decision to more the title race from Homestead-Miami Speedway, where it had been hosted since 2002, to the newly-refurbished Phoenix track falls under the business category side of things.
NASCAR apparently wanted to spotlight the 1-mile facility in the desert which has recently undergone a $178 million makeover. Also, there is speculation that this is a prelude to Ford Championship Weekend being rotated around on a regular or semi-regular basis.
Also, as O’Donnell admitted, it was a good time for a change in Daytona because the July 4th fireworks just didn’t seem to have as much sizzle as they used to.
“While I love July 4th and the tradition, it’s not sold out,” O’Donnell said. “It’s been a challenge from a weather standpoint, and are we really showcasing that track and all that’s gone into it as much as we should?
“We all felt that the regular-season finale at Daytona would do just that. That’s why the move was made. It would not have been made just to kind of move it a week or two off of July 4th.”
For NASCAR’s sake as well as that of its fans, let’s hope they are right. H&A
All photos courtesy NASCARMedia.com
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