Thursday, July 19, 2018
Sports

Fennelly: Daytona's 400-miler provides some of July's signature moments

DAYTONA BEACH

Monday marks 240 years since a field of 56 drafted that Declaration of Independence deal. Yeah, they drafted back then, too. Only they didn't write two or three wide, unless you count Hancock.

NASCAR held its annual gas-guzzling American salute Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, the Coke Zero 400. Nobody seemed to care that it was the Second of July, not the Fourth. Certainly not race winner Brad Keselowski. But there was this one guy …

"They always ran the Fourth of July when I was running," the one and only Richard Petty said as he cut the cake on his 79th birthday Saturday afternoon. "Then they started saying closest day to the Fourth of July. Now it's all up and down the deal."

Still, it's really all of Fourth of July weekend when we come together as a nation, though not like the 22-car, "When in the Course of human events" demolition derby that took out half this 400 field just past the race's midway point. Who says the Daytona summer race doesn't matter?

The 400 doesn't have the history of the February race at the high banks, the 500-mile deal, but it's no runt at big moments.

There was 2001, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced to victory in the 400 less than five months after his father died on the same track.

There was 1959, the very first Firecracker 400, so long ago it was only the Firecracker 250, won by Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, who, no kidding, was interviewed trackside after the race by this fellow from CBS: Walter "Fireball" Cronkite.

And of course there was the Firecracker 400 on the Fourth of July 1984, won by King Richard, his 200th and final NASCAR victory. Ronald Reagan, head of the whole deal at the time, was at the track.

"It was the biggest thing that ever happened to us," Petty said. "We'd won Daytona 500s and a bunch of stuff, but that was the pinnacle, I guess. To wind up winning on the Fourth of July in front of the president of the United States, winning on the last green-flag lap. What else could you really hope for in a career?"

The King mentioned old days, Firecracker days, morning start times.

"Loved it. You didn't have to worry about it raining in the morning. We always come down here, the whole racing fraternity, and used it as a vacation. Start the race at 10 o'clock, back on the beach at 1:30 with the family."

But the 400 still runs good. There were any number of deals Saturday.

The Stewart deal. Tony Stewart, who is retiring after this season and who shocked everyone with a win last week at Sonoma, has climbed into the Chase for the Championship. The three-time series champion crashed out late Saturday, finished 26th, but is now 30th in points. That and his Sonoma win put Tony the Tiger in the Chase field at the moment. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Earnhardt deal. Junior is winless this season and hasn't locked up a Chase spot. Wrecked out in the big mess, came back, finished 21st.

The Almirola deal. Tampa-raised Aric Almirola tried to double down after Friday's Xfinity victory and win again for a Chase spot. He was third after 80 laps, avoided the big mess but finished 15th.

The Busch deal. Kyle, that is. Busch, defending Sprint Cup champion, hit the wall hard during Friday practice. He was extremely lucky. Saturday he was extremely fast. Finished second.

The Keselowski deal: Keselowski has restrictor-plate wins at Talladega but had none in 15 previous Daytona races. Scratch that.

We leave you with the King.

Before the race, Richard Petty finished his cake and broke out a can of dip.

"I don't have a bucket list," he said. "My whole life, I just tried to go from day to day and do a little bit better today than I did yesterday."

Happy Fourth of July deal, everybody. Aim high in steering.

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