By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads into Daytona International Speedway this week for a Saturday Night showdown known as the Coke Zero 400. However this race has not always been held under the lights, in fact the last time this race was ran during the daylight was the 1997 running of the event. That race is this week’s NASCAR Flashback.
It was a hot summer day in Daytona Beach, Florida on July 5th, 1997. Rookie Mike Skinner, who actually sat on the pole in February’s Daytona 500, would lead the field to the green flag in this race as well.
Skinner would lead the first two laps, but a crash on lap 33 would force him out of the race with a 41st-place finish.
John Andretti started third on the day, and would take the lead for the first time on lap three. Andretti driving for legendary driver Cale Yarborough’s team would dominate the day by leading 113 laps, however with just five laps to go he had some of the fiercest drivers in the sport breathing down his neck for the victory.
Earnhardt, Jarrett, Marlin, and Labonte were all in position to make a pass on the young-gun who made his way to NASCAR from open wheel racing. The race was setting up for an intense down-to-the-wire fight.
However later that lap there was a huge crash involving Michael Waltrip, Hut Stricklin, and Morgan Shepherd. Because of how late in the race the incident occured, it appeared that this would seal the deal for Andretti’s first career Sprint Cup victory and that the race would finish under caution. However NASCAR feverishly cleaned up the debris that was scattered on the racetrack.
NASCAR would get the track cleaned off in time to give the fans a one lap shootout for the victory.
Andretti brought the field down to the green flag at a snail’s pace, and Dale Earnhardt nearly bumped him across the line. Andretti’s No. 98 RCA Ford would jump out to a small lead, but with Earnhardt receiving drafting help from Dale Jarrett it appeared that Andretti was nothing more than a sitting duck.
However Jarrett pulled out from behind Earnhardt to make a pass for second-place. As Jarrett made his move, so too did Sterling Marlin. Jarrett, Marlin, and Earnhardt sat three wide fighting for second, while Andretti closed in on his first ever victory.
Going down the backstrech just behind the leaders, Ward Burton was attempting to move further up inside the top-five and actually got a shoved into the grass. When they got to turn three Burton and others would run out of room, and this would set off yet another huge crash.
Burton slammed hard into the outside wall collecting with him Mark Martin, Dick Trickle and several others who had great runs going.
Meanwhile up front Andretti cruised to the finish line 29-thousandths of a second ahead of Terry Labonte, who somehow squeezed by Sterling Marlin who finished third and Dale Earnhardt who ended up fourth. Dale Jarrett would round out the top-five.
Not only was this the first win for Andretti as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but it was also the first and only victory for Cale Yarborough as a car owner.
Upon entering victory lane for the first time Andretti praised his team for their efforts on restrictor plate tracks.
“I’ve been saying that this team is best when it comes to restrictor plate races. We’ve been saying it and today we proved it.” Andretti said. “Anybody could of drove the car.”
When asked about NASCAR’s decision to restart the race with one lap to go, Andretti explained he wasn’t too worried.
“This car accelerates really hard on the restarts. I just figured that if we had to restart that we’d be in pretty good shape.”
Terry Labonte overcame starting 35th to finish second. He explained his day as a work in progress.
“We started pretty far back. It was a struggle early for us. There for a while I didn’t even know if we could get to the top-ten.” Labonte said.
The 1997 Pepsi 400 was a relatively clean and fast race, up until the final few laps. There were four cautions on the day, and the race took just over two and a half hours to complete. The racetrack would install lights around the track in 1998, and thus the new tradition of running the July 4th race under the lights was born.