Since 1959, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 has been a staple of Independence Day weekend. Passing from legends like Fireball Roberts and David Pearson to modern-day champions like Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the race’s legacy continues to grow in magnitude and prestige. Mixed into the nearly six decades of history, several moments stand tall as some of the Coke Zero Sugar 400’s most significant.
July 4, 1959 – Inaugural race
The first summer race at Daytona International Speedway was called the Firecracker 250 – the forerunner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400– and held on July 4, 1959. Broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite – just three years before he catapulted into iconic status as anchorman for CBS Evening News – helmed the pace car, setting the stage for a race that ran its scheduled 250 miles with no caution flags. Daytona Beach native Fireball Roberts won in dominating fashion, leading 84 of 100 laps and beating runner-up Joe Weatherly by 57 seconds.
July 4, 1969 – Medal of Honor tradition begins
Bill France Sr. began a proud tradition by inviting all surviving Medal of Honor recipients to attend the race, dubbing it the Medal of Honor Firecracker 400. A total of 100 members from 31 states attended the race with Thomas J. Kelly, the president of the Medal of Honor Society, serving as the grand marshal with the heroes flown in via military aircraft. The speedway’s strong relationship with the military continues to the present day as three Medal of Honor recipients are set to be honored at the 2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400.
July 4, 1974 – Pearson vs. Petty
Pearson’s 1974 win stands among his most exciting performances. After leading at the white flag, Pearson slowed his 1973 Mercury, allowing Richard Petty to pass and jump out to a substantial lead. The unusual move was fueled by Pearson’s confidence in drafting – he preferred to be the driver trailing and then passing via the superspeedway “slingshot” maneuver rather than trying to hold off Petty from the lead position. As planned, Pearson passed Petty on the final turn of the final lap to win a record third-consecutive Coke Zero Sugar 400.
July 4, 1977 – Three women enter the field
In a racing grid that included 41 drivers, an unprecedented three were females - Lella Lombardi, Christine Beckers and Janet Guthrie – the most ever in a NASCAR race. Guthrie, the only American-born female driver on the grid, started in an impressive 20th position. She would go on to run four more races at DAYTONA, included three career Coke Zero Sugar 400s with a finish of 11th in the 1978 race.
July 4, 1984 – Ronald Reagan comes to Daytona International Speedway
The 1984 race stands as perhaps one of the most significant moments in DIS history as it helped push NASCAR into the mainstream of national consciousness. President Ronald Reagan, the first sitting President to attend a NASCAR race, gave the starting command from Air Force One, and then witnessed Richard Petty claim his 200th and final career victory.
After he took the white flag, Petty made his way to the press box to greet the President, who congratulated “The King” on his historic win. The moment, a NASCAR classic, was followed up by the timeless image of the two men sharing a barbeque dinner in celebration of the Fourth of July holiday.
July 4, 1985 – Greg Sacks upset victory
In 1985, virtual unknown Greg Sacks shocked the motorsports world by becoming the third driver to score his first (and only) career victory with a surprising win in the Independence Day weekend classic.
October 17, 1998 – Under the lights in October
Jeff Gordon stamped himself into the record book for the 1990s with another victory in Coke Zero Sugar 400 victory in 1998. Originally scheduled to be held on July 4 and for the first time at night, the race was postponed until October due to widespread wildfires in Central Florida. Gordon’s victory made him the first driver to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race run under the lights at the world-famous facility.
July 7, 2001 – Dale Jr.’s First DAYTONA Victory
At the time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in his second full-time season in the NASCAR's top series at just 26 years old, arriving in DAYTONA for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 looking to snap a 39-race winless streak. The race’s sentimental favorite, the budding star led 116 laps in the 160-lap race to claim his first career DAYTONA win. The win came 11 years to the day that his father got his first Cup Series win at DIS.
July 7, 2007 – Closest Coke Zero Sugar 400
Jamie McMurray clinched a thrilling victory in the 2007 49th annual Coke Zero Sugar 400 as he wheeled himself to the head of the field for the closest finish in the Independence Day weekend classic since the advent of electronic timing and scoring – .005 seconds. The win marked the last race at Daytona International Speedway before the Car of Tomorrow was introduced, it snapped Chevrolet's win streak that started with the 2004 race and was only McMurray’s second career victory.
July 2, 2010 – Dale Jr. Wins in No. 3
On a mission to honor his father’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Jr. took the wheel behind a No. 3 Chevrolet with a Wrangler paint scheme in the 2010 Coca-Cola Firecracker 250. Against the backdrop of an 85-race winless streak, Earnhardt Jr. added a new page to his proud legacy, leaving many with a sight they thought was lost with time – the No. 3 back in Gatorade Victory Lane. To this day, the victory remains the last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. has wheeled the No. 3 car.
July 6, 2013 – Jimmie Johnson completes the DAYTONA Double
In the 55th annual Coke Zero Sugar 400 in 2013, Jimmie Johnson became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep the DAYTONA 500 and the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in the same season. He joined Fireball Roberts (1962), Cale Yarborough (1968) and LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969).
July 5-6 2015 - Jr.'s Night Run
Earnhardt Jr.’s second Coke Zero Sugar 400 victory saw him become just the 9th driver to win the race from pole position after rain forced officials to decide starting positions from opening practice times. Delayed until nearly midnight, Earnhardt Jr claimed his second July victory at around 2:40am in one of the most memorable races in recent memory.
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