It was history dunked in patriotism and sprinkled with nostalgia. It was a Babe Ruth home run for a sick kid in the hospital on the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July part, for sure. No one grasped the ultimate historic value of Richard Petty winning his record 200th race at the then-Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984. No one could have known it would be the seven-time champion's last. At age 47, "The King" was still competitive, still seven seasons from retirement. "Heck, I know he won a heck of a lot. But you just don't think about it at the time," runnerup Harry Gant said. "He won so many races, you didn't really consider it. And he was still running good at that point. I didn't think he was going to end at 200. They didn't make any big deal of it. It was like Richard said. It was like winning 199." But Petty, who turned 72 on Thursday, had only two second-place finishes thereafter. Most everyone understood it would be remembered, though.
Popular president Ronald Reagan, a former sportscaster, gave the command to start the engines from Air Force One on his way to Daytona Beach, where he watched the race with then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. from a secret suite.
Petty's door-to-door duel with Cale Yarborough was one of the most dramatic in the sport's history with Petty taking a low line late in Lap 158 of a scheduled 160 to recapture the lead and hold on in a race to the flag stand as a yellow was about to be issued.
He won by a nose, though officially under caution after winding down the final laps under yellow.
"Cale passes me like I knew what he was going to do because I couldn't do anything with the draft," Petty recalled. "And as he did, he went into the third corner, and the car moves up a little bit. And I pulled in beside it, and we are hung side by side going into three, into four, down the front stretch.
"I happened to be on the inside lane. And when we got to the dogleg, then we both turn and my car runs 3 feet shorter than his, and I wind up winning the race."
Gant had the best seat in the theater. If that No. 43 Pontiac bumped into that No. 28 Chevrolet just right, he thought, he might have his first win at Daytona.
Petty and Yarborough's battle for the lead began in earnest when Doug Heveron slid off the track near Turn 1 with three laps left.
"I think the caution was out when we came down the backstretch into the turn, and we were racing back to the white flag," Gant recalled. "We went down through the backstretch and came around under caution.
"The (caution) car hadn't picked anybody up yet, so Cale goes down pit road. So I said, 'Dang gone! That must have been the checkered flag.' I was turning with him, and they called me on the radio, 'Stay out! Stay out!' I thought Richard was just going on down and making a victory lap."
Gant was credited with second and won three of the next eight races to finish second in points to Terry Labonte.
It looked like an ultimate display of disgust, a proclamation that second place was as good as last after he led a race-high 79 laps, was in prime position to slingshot past Petty and into the lead in the final laps.
Yarborough had pulled from Petty's slip stream in Turn 3 only to have Petty pass him low coming out of Turn 4.
"I was sitting right where I thought I wanted to be," Yarborough recalled. "I got beat at my own game, I guess."
Yarborough referred to Petty's Robert Yates-built engine as "very strong," fueling a long-standing conspiracy theory that NASCAR allowed Petty to get away with using an illegal engine. But the three-time champion and winner of that season's Daytona 500 didn't leave the track in disgust, he said.
"I misread the flagman's finger," he said. "I thought it was over. I guess my brain blew."
Petty was pleasantly surprised to have pleased the president.
A staunch Republican with his own political aspirations, Petty stopped his car, which now is displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, at the start/finish line and made his way through the grandstands to meet and be interviewed with Reagan on live television. And then his favorite part.
"We had a picnic with the president of the United States on July the Fourth," he said. "So you know, it was a great, great day for us. I think it was a great day for racing."
Brant James can be reached at [email protected]