NASCAR: Daytona's July Race Brings Just as Much Magic as February's

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NASCAR: Daytona's July Race Brings Just as Much Magic as February's
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Just mention the words "Daytona 500" and memories of past magical races come alive.

Rather, it’s the first one in 1959 with a photo finish in which Lee Petty claimed victory, or it’s the most recent one from February 2011 when Trevor Bayne surprised everyone.

While the 500 is Daytona’s most famous race, by the time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns in July the second Daytona race often gets overlooked.

Lacking grandness and any real build-up, it seems the July Daytona race is just a regular race, missing the same magic as the 500.

Or does it?

Well, not exactly, and the history of the two races would suggest that in July, Daytona is a totally different racetrack. Only four drivers in the previous 54 years have won both Daytona events, and the last time it happened was in 1982, with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison capturing both race wins.

Drivers who are stellar at the track in July doesn’t mean they are stellar in February. Dale Earnhardt, who is arguably one of the best drafting racers NASCAR has ever seen, had two July wins to his one February win, in points-paying races. (It should be noted, however, Earnhardt had 12 qualifying race wins, all of which were held in February.)

Current driver-owner Tony Stewart has three points-paying wins (and two qualifying-event wins in February), all of which came in July.

Jeff Gordon and David Pearson are also two other drivers that won at Daytona in July before finally winning the 500. 

Richard Petty’s last and 200th win came in the July Daytona race.

While the July Daytona race is one that feels like just another stop on the schedule, with all the glitz and glamour of the 500 gone, past history proves the 400-mile event at Daytona can be just as intriguing as the 500-mile mega-event that kicks off the season.

Back in 1966, through the first 27 NSCS points-paying events (back then including the Daytona 500 qualifying races), there had been 12 different winners, and going into the Firecracker 400 (as it was known then) there was something different about 1965 Rookie of the Year Sam McQuagg’s Dodge.

For the first time at Daytona International Speedway, a car had a spoiler on the back to help the car cut through the air that was created by the high speeds.

The result of the new rear spoiler was astounding. McQuagg’s Dodge cut through the air and he moved swiftly through the competition, blowing past pole-sitter LeeRoy Yarbrough to lead the first lap after starting fourth. On that day, McQuagg would go on to lead 126 of the 160 laps. It was no surprise when the checkered flag waved, McQuagg’s Dodge was one of only two cars on the lead lap and his lead over second-place Darel Dieringer was 66 seconds.

For the 1965 Rookie of the Year, it seemed this victory for his No. 98 Nichels Engineering Dodge would be the first of many to come, especially considering the dominating fashion in which he won. However, the 1966 Firecracker 400 was McQuagg’s first and only victory in his entire Sprint Cup career.

Flash forward 31 years and another No. 98 car would find victory lane. This time the car had changed to a Ford, restrictor plates had been added to the engine to slow the cars down, and a driver with a legendary last name would find himself in victory lane for the first time.

For the last time in the long history of the race, the Pepsi (Firecracker, Coke Zero) 400 would be held in the daytime as the next season NASCAR would change the day race to a night race.

Driver John Andretti moved from his third starting position to take the lead in just three laps. For much of the day Andretti showed he belonged in NASCAR (after moving from open wheels to stock cars). With the laps winding down, two very good restrictor plate drivers were right behind Andretti, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett.

With five laps to go, Ricky Rudd got loose going into turn one and caused several other cars to wreck, the caution flag was displayed and it appeared that the race would end under caution. Knowing this, Andretti, Earnhardt and Jarrett all raced back to the start/finish line, with the first driver getting there most likely was going to be the winner. Andretti held his line and the lead to the yellow flag.

NASCAR was able to clean up the track and the race would end under green. Andretti had to hold off the field for one lap. Trying to hold Earnhardt from laying back and get a head of steam coming to the line, Andretti drove very slowly, preventing Earnhardt from getting any advantage on the restart.

As the cars gained speed down the backstretch, the race for second heated up as Earnhardt found himself surrounded by Terry Labonte on the outside and Jarett on the inside. With three wide racing behind him, Andretti was able to capture his first career victory.

Several drivers have found victory for the first time at the July Daytona race, including A.J. Foyt, Greg Sacks, who like McQuagg, only won one NSCS race, Jimmy Spencer and Greg Biffle.

Besides first-time winners, the July Daytona race also has had great stories. In 2001, a great story was brewing for the Pepsi 400.

After losing a legend—Dale Earnhardt in the February race at Daytona—it was hard for a lot of fans to come back to a place where he died. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., would have to drive by the same corner where his dad died for 160 laps.

With just six laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. was sitting sixth on the track with five very hungry drivers—many of whom had never even won a NSCS event leading. Earnhardt Jr. was hungry, too. While his dad had made Daytona somewhat of a personal playground, his son had never won at Daytona.

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After a lap of trying to find a partner to draft with, Earnhardt Jr. made a move by himself going to the outside of everyone through turns three and four, the exact place where his dad died five months earlier, to take the lead.

For the next four and a quarter laps, Earnhardt Jr. would block the attempts of numerous drivers and drive to his first career Daytona win.

It was an emotional victory for everyone that attended or watched that July Daytona race.

Emotions of a different sort were on display in 2007 when Jamie McMurray, who was in the middle of a five-year winless streak, would once again find victory lane.

It wasn’t easy for McMurray, who had to hold off the four Hendricks drivers in the final seven laps, including Daytona winner Jeff Gordon.

With five laps to go, McMurray was able to pass the Hendricks foursome and was leading, but still had to hold off the Hendricks bunch if he wanted the win.

Coming to the white flag, Kyle Busch had the inside locked down and McMurray was holding tough on the outside. Coming down the backstretch, Busch had his brother, Kurt, behind him for help, but McMurray had his teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle behind him.

Coming to the checkered flag, the Busch brothers were drafting on the inside and the three Roushketeers were holding strong on the outside. Rounding turn four, McMurray and Busch were in a drag race to the finish line, Busch had the slight edge heading into the tri-oval, a few hundred feet from the finish.

With the checkered flag awaiting them, McMurray moved low and got a side draft off Busch’s car and carried the draft and the momentum across the finish. McMurray edged Busch by 0.005 seconds for his second career win while tying the second closest finish in NASCAR history (since electronic timing started in 1993).

July’s Daytona race may not be as big or as long as February's, but the memories can be. It appears that sometimes the magic of a Daytona race can come from July.

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