Even though the Fourth of July represents America’s Independence Day, a commemoration of the fact that we are no longer subject to monarchical rule, we do still celebrate two kings here in the United States. One is Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll.” The other is Richard “The King” Petty, one of the most legendary figures to step foot inside of a NASCAR stock car.
A seven-time Cup Series champ, Petty had a career defined by moments that would go on to grace the pages of NASCAR history books. There was his running in the very first Daytona 500 back in 1959, and his dramatic come-from-behind victory at the very same race 20 years later. Of course, you can’t forget Petty’s dominant Cup season in 1967, where he saw Victory Lane a whopping 27 times, or his final championship season in 1979.
While Richard Petty retired from NASCAR in 1992, after competing for more than 30 years in the sport’s highest level, July 4, 1984 represents both a special milestone date and a perfect bookend to Petty’s iconic career. On this date at the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Petty solidified a Cup Series record that no NASCAR driver has come even close to breaking.
With 80,000 fans in attendance, the 1984 Firecracker 400 began with the “start your engines” command from President Ronald Reagan, who gave racers the go-ahead via phone while aboard Air Force One. Reagan would later watch the race in person from one of the main press box areas at Daytona. Later that afternoon, Reagan celebrated Petty’s victory over a picnic of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pepsi. But, while Petty’s No. 43 Pontiac was the best car of the bunch, his race at Daytona was anything but a picnic.
Around two-thirds into the race, Petty was enjoying a fairly comfortable lead when his camshaft broke. This led to an intense battle between Petty and Cale Yarborough for the lead. While Yarborough could have passed Petty at any point, he opted to stay behind Petty so that he could draft by him on the final lap. It was a move that had won him the Daytona 500 earlier that year and in ’83.
On lap 158 of the 160-lap race, Doug Heveron wrecked his No. 01 Chevrolet in turn one, bringing out the caution. Because there wasn’t enough time to clean up the crash and return to the green flag, this meant that whoever crossed the start/finish line first would be declared the winner, even though there were still two laps to go. Petty ended up beating Yarborough by a nose. Though, bizarrely enough, Yarborough didn’t actually place second.
Yarborough didn’t realize that, since the caution flag was out, he still needed to circulate the final two laps behind the pace car before his finish was official. He accidentally pulled off the track one lap too early, and while he raced off pit road to, he was passed by Harry Gant and ended up placing third. Yarborough’s strange mental lapse led to controversy and conspiracy, with many fans suggesting that the race was fixed for good publicity. Yarborough’s eventual excuse was simply, “my brain blew up.”
But none of that was on the mind of Richard Petty, who went up to Daytona’s suite level after the race and got a special congratulations from President Reagan. “I understand that no one in the whole history of racing has ever done that, won 200 races,” Reagan told Petty.
It was true: Petty’s win at the Firecracker 400 would be his 200th Cup Series victory (or 201st, if you want to be technical). Though it would also mark his final career win, Petty’s Cup record will never be broken. David Pearson has the second-most Cup wins with 105, and the closest active driver to the record is Kyle Busch with 60 wins. Hey, they call Richard Petty “The King” for a reason.