Grand National Scene
By Steve Waid
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 4, 1984) - Independence Day 1984 has become the most significant date in stock car racing history.
Richard Lee Petty of Level Cross, N.C., the long-reigning "King of Stock Car Racing," made history by winning his 200th NASCAR Winston Cup race.
More than that, he did it before an astonished President of the United States and 80,000 excited, cheering fans who watched him bang metal with Cale Yarborough in a furious battle down the homestretch in today’s Pepsi Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
The drama came to a heart-stopping end when Petty nudged his STP Pontiac across the finish line a fender-length ahead of Yarborough’s overwhelmingly-favored Ranier/ Hardee’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
No one could have conceived a better setting. The legendary Petty won his 200th race - more than any other NASCAR driver in history - on America’s 208th birthday in front of Ronald Reagan, the first President to attend a Winston Cup event. The gut wrenching finish will be logged in Daytona records as one of the most memorable.
Even Petty, who turned 47 on July 2, recognized the impact of the race. Routinely at ease in victory and defeat during the course of his 25-year career, he was obviously touched, swallowing hard and visibly struggling for the right words to say. At times he even appeared to be fighting to hold back tears.
“I just want to say how much of a pleasure it’s been working with you guys,” said Petty to the media gathered in the speedway press box. “Not that I’m quitting or anything. It’s just a situation where Richard Petty won 200 races, but he didn’t do it by himself. I guess first I should thank STP, which has been with me for 14 years. There were a couple of years when I didn’t win and a lot of people had written me off, but STP stuck with me.
“All of the people who have worked with me have been super. I can’t tell you how I feel about the people who have been involved in the situation. I’ve got a gift in this talent that God gave me and there have been a lot of people who have helped me over the years.
“I appreciate all of them. Two hundred wins at a local track would be nothing, but that’s where the press comes in. You got the word out to the people.
“I felt the same way I did after any win, but it was a big thrill to hear the crew hollering over the radio and the crowd cheering. The 200th victory was a big win. Because it was Daytona it was a big win. It was a big deal because it was July 4. And it was the first race for a president. All of that combined to make it just a big, big deal. That’s the best way to describe it.”
“It was a big thrill to hear the crew hollering over the radio and the crowd cheering. The 200th victory was a big win. Because it was Daytona it was a big win. It was a big deal because it was July 4. And it was the first race for a president. All of that combined to make it just a big, big deal.” – Richard Petty
Although the race covered 160 laps on Daytona’s 2.5-mile trioval, Petty actually won it on the 158th lap. He had been leading the relentless Yarborough, who was obviously poised to make the classic last-lap “slingshot” pass for victory, when Doug Heveron lost control of his car at the entrance to the first turn and flipped into the infield.
Fortunately, rookie Heveron was not injured in the incident, but everyone knew what the resulting caution flag - only the third of the day - meant.
Petty and Yarborough took the yellow flag after they had crossed the start-finish line to begin lap 158, which meant they had to race each other back to the flagstand. It was clear that the winner of the dash would be the winner of the race.
Petty led down the backstretch, but going into the 31-degree third turn, Yarborough slipped by and assumed first place. However, in so doing, he charged into the turn too hard and his Monte Carlo drifted high into the turn. Petty cut to the inside immediately and the two raced side-by-side as they gobbled up the last half-mile of the race at 200 miles per hour.
Touching metal as they bore down on slower cars, Petty got the edge with his inside route. He picked up the draft of the cars ahead and his last contact with Yarborough squirted him ahead by a mere couple of feet. That turned out to be the margin of victory.
Petty’s STP crew erupted in a dance of celebration because it knew, as did all in attendance, all Petty had to do was follow the pace car to the checkered flag.
“Where did I want to be on that lap?” said Petty during the winner’s interview. “Exactly where I am now. As Cale followed me before we got the caution, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was going to do. It was a circumstance where someone would act and I would react. I knew what Cale would do and I knew what I wanted to do if he did it.
“But then came the caution. When we came off the fourth turn, we couldn’t see what had happened in the first turn. But when we crossed the line, we saw the turn and the first thing you do is look. The minute I saw that car in the infield I knew what had to be done. I didn’t even look for a caution, although I think I saw the yellow light in the first turn. I just knew that the first car to the finish line would be the winner.”
Petty admitted he got his break when Yarborough got a bit too high in the third turn. “Cale was trying so hard that he ran in there harder than he would have liked, I’m sure," said Petty. “When he burped the car to keep it from going into the wall, I just turned left and I was under him. I had some advantage because I was able to use the draft of three or four slower cars ahead of us (among them Ken Ragan’s and David Pearson’s). At first I thought they would be a detriment because they would block me.”
Using the traffic, Petty squeezed closer to Yarborough, who was still hung on the outside. It appeared their cars had been welded together.
“We touched two or three times there, but not enough to upset either car,” allowed Petty. “I think the last time we touched, it squirted me in front of Cale, maybe by two or three feet. All I know is from where I was sitting I was in front of him. We never touched hard enough to lose the line. We kept it up from where the entrance to pit road starts to maybe 50 feet in front of the finish line.”
All that remained after the duel was for Petty and Yarborough to cruise the final two laps at reduced speed. But the finishing order changed when the normally alert Yarborough brought his car down pit road as Petty took the white flag. Thinking the race was over, Yarborough had begun to make his way into the garage area when he suddenly realized there was one lap remaining. He roared down pit road and back onto the track, but not before he had lost second place to Harry Gant in the Skoal Bandit Monte Carlo.
“My brain blew up, I guess,” said Yarborough, the pole winner who came so close to winning his fourth race in only nine starts this season. “I just flat messed up. I misread the flagman’s fingers and I thought the race was over. I was thinking so much about beating Richard to the flag that for some reason I thought the race was over.
“I guess a late caution flag is something you can’t anticipate. It came out as we went into turn one and I knew I had to beat him to the flag. I got around him going into turn three but I went into it harder than I wanted and that let him get under me. There were some slower cars ahead and he got to use their draft while I got hung on the outside.
“I was sitting right where I wanted to be but Richard was awfully strong and he edged me to the line. He ran a heckuva race and I congratulate him on his 200th win. Now he can get started on 300.”
Petty’s win was the 10th of his career at Daytona, a track that has been good to him (witness his record seven Daytona triumphs). His last Pepsi Firecracker 400 win came in 1977. His 200th win came in his 944th start (also a record) and he has now logged 536 top-five finishes and 644 among the top 10. His winnings of $43,755 boosted his season total to $156,125 and his career winnings to $5,610,657, another record.
Yarborough showed his muscle by leading nine times for 79 laps, but Petty was his anticipated strong self as he led six times for 53 laps.
“Really, I can’t say that I had the strongest car," said Petty. “After our last pit stops (on laps 123 and 124), I made up some seconds on Cale. But he ran me down.”
Petty had about a six-second lead following the stops, but by lap 142, Yarborough had caught him. “His car was probably a little quicker,” admitted Petty. “But they were fairly equal.”
“I was sitting right where I wanted to be but Richard was awfully strong and he edged me to the line. He ran a heckuva race and I congratulate him on his 200th win. Now he can get started on 300.” – Cale Yarborough
Gant’s runnerup finish was the 17th of his career and his 11th on a superspeedway. Thus he is in keeping with his long-established bridesmaid’s role.
Following Yarborough in fourth place was Bobby Allison in the DiGard/Miller High Life Buick. Fifth place went to Benny Parsons in the Hayes/ Copenhagen Monte Carlo, sixth to Bill Elliott in the Coors/Melling Ford Thunderbird, seventh to Terry Labonte in the Hagan/Piedmont Airlines Monte Carlo, eighth to Dale Earnhardt in the Childress/Wrangler Monte Carlo, ninth to Neil Bonnett in the Johnson-Hodgdon/Budweiser Monte Carlo and 10th to Joe Ruttman in the Benfield/Levi Garrett Monte Carlo.
Ignition problems forced Darrell Waltrip’s Johnson Hodgdon/Budweiser Monte Carlo into an early 31-lap pit stop. Upon returning to the race, he could complete only 126 laps. He finished 31st.
Buddy Baker also experienced a blown engine in his Wood Brothers/Valvoline Thunderbird and he completed only four laps en route to a 4lst-place finish. That was only slightly better than Lake Speed, who was unable to complete the first lap before the engine in his Ellington/Bull Frog Knits Monte Carlo let go, relegating him to a 42nd-place finish.
Bobby Hillin’s wreck in the second turn brought out the day’s second caution on lap 43 (Baker’s blown engine brought out the first) while Heveron’s accident initiated the third and final caution of the day. The three yellow flags totaled 15 laps. That permitted Petty to win with an average speed of 171.204 mph.
Eight drivers swapped the lead 29 times and the race took two hours, 19 minutes and 59 seconds to complete.
That was also the amount of time it took to create racing history.
“I would say that going for the 200th win was more of a burden rather than a pressure situation for me,” said Petty, who has spent the past several weeks besieged with questions about the quest.
“No one even mentioned it until I got win No. 199 (in the May Budweiser 500 at Dover, Del.), I guess it would have gone on for a year if it had taken me that long to get it. I’m just glad I could get it within five races.”
Now that the hunt is done and the goal reached, Richard Petty can savor the memory and proceed with the business at hand - winning races. On July 4, 1984, he proved conclusively he’s more than able to do that.
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