When Paul Menard and the No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Mustang leave Daytona International Speedway at the end of Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, it’ll mark the end of an era.
From the opening of Daytona International Speedway in 1959, the track has hosted the series now known as Monster Energy Cup on the Fourth of July or that weekend.
Beginning next year, the second Cup race at Daytona, behind the season-opening Daytona 500, will be run in late August and become the final event in the 26-race regular season, giving drivers and teams one last chance to make the cut for the 10-race Playoffs, which will begin the following week at Darlington Raceway.
From 1959 through 1987, the race commonly known as the Firecracker 400 back in the day was run on July 4.
Races typically got the green flag at 10 a.m., allowing fans a break from the July heat, and giving race teams an opportunity to do their work at the track and get in some beach time in the afternoon before heading home. (Fans also were able to flock to the beaches after the race.)
In 1988 the race moved to the Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend and ran on that day until this year, with the lone exception being in 1998, when wildfires in central Florida forced the race to be moved to October.
The summertime Daytona races have been good for the Wood Brothers team, which has five wins in the premier Daytona 500. The Woods have eight victories in July at Daytona, with the legendary David Pearson accounting for half of them.
Pearson swept the summer races at Daytona from 1972-74 and won again in 1978, with Neil Bonnett following up with another victory in 1979.
Buddy Baker won in 1983, and that ended up being the 19th and final Cup victory for the NASCAR Hall of Fame driver.
Leonard Wood, the long-time crew chief for the No. 21, said he was cool with the hot Daytona temperatures.
“I never minded the heat,” he said. “The drive down there wasn’t bad because I was looking forward to the race and enjoyed it so much.”
Wood said that he and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Inman, the veteran crew chief for Richard Petty, carried on a friendly rivalry about their Daytona successes.
“Dale used to like to tell me about him being a seven-time Daytona 500 winner, but I’d tell him, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have any in July.’
“Of course they finally won one.”
Wood’s cars often were dominant in the July heat.
“In 1968, Cale Yarborough was driving our car, and we were sitting third when it rained,” Wood said. “I said I’d be happy if they called it right there, but Cale disagreed. He said there were two more spots to get, and when they restarted the race he went on to win.”
Yarborough repeated the next year. “He ran away with, and set a new race record of over 167 miles per hour,” Wood said.
Even though Wood can take the heat without breaking out in a big sweat, there were times at Daytona that the heat got to him.
“After we won the race, I had to tear down the engine,” he said. “And standing over that hot engine, sweat was running off my nose.”
But it was all worth it.
“I loved to win the race and then go over to the beach,” he said.
Qualifying for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 is set for Friday at 5:05 p.m., and the race is scheduled to start just after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday with TV coverage on NBC.