The '91 Firecracker 400: Jaws, Awesome Bill, And The Defiant Four-Year-Old

The remains of Darryl Waltrip's car on display after the 1991 July race at Daytona. This wreck brought about several safety changes to help protect drivers during wrecks involving cars rolling multiple times. Photo Credit: Bob Ellis (NASCAR Ranting and Raving)

One of my favorite races of the year is the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. There's a certain bit of novelty to the race, owing to the fact that it is more of a "regular" event rather than the week-plus long endeavor that is the Daytona 500 but still takes place at the World Center of Racing.

There have been a lot of great memories in the event's 54-year history. Of course, the highlight is Richard Petty's 200th and final victory in 1984, but other moments along the way have shaped stock car lore.

Saturday's 160-lapper will be the 19th July classic at Daytona that I've been privileged to watch on television - I had to listen to the '94 race on the radio and missed the '96 and '97 events altogether - and I have many favorite memories of my own from the race. Of course Tony Stewart's three wins rank right at the top of my list, but until he wins the 500, they'll be a little bit bittersweet. Dale Jarrett's 1999 victory, Sterling Marlin's win over Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in the '95 race, and fellow Georgian David Ragan's triumph in last year's race are other personally fond moments.

It is my very first 400, however, that reigns as my favorite - and funniest - memory of the "other" race at Daytona.

I was four years old - specifically, four years, seven months, and one day - when the 1991 Pepsi 400 went green on July 6, 1991.

Back then, and through the '97 race, the event was run on Saturday morning. Conventional wisdom was that the boys could hop in their cars, run 400 miles, hop out, get showered, and be on the beach by the time the ungodly July afternoon heat descended upon Daytona.

Sterling Marlin was on the pole for this particular race, driving Junior Johnson's No. 22 Maxwell House car. Sterling had some terrific runs in the two years he ran Junior's car, and the '91 400 was one of just five superspeedway poles he collected in the blue double-deuce.

Now, like any decent person, I loved Sterling - how could you not love Sterling? - but my true favorite driver was starting outside the front row. I don't really remember the start of the race, but I'm pretty sure I had high hopes for Davey Allison.

After Davey, I kind of had a favorite driver by committee that included Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan, and Darrell Waltrip. Yes, I loved an Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Hey, I was four. I didn't know the cardinal sin I was committing until years later.

I figure my love of DW had something to do with the fact that my parents loved Bill Elliott and thereby loathed the man in the Western Auto Chevy. I meanwhile, being the little non-conformist that I was, all-but hated my fellow Georgian and thought Darrell was the awesome one - after Davey and Mark, of course.

Being that I was so young, I have very little memory of specific happenings in the race. I do recall Morgan Shepherd, then driving Bud Moore's Motorcraft T-Bird, being involved in a multi-car accident off the second turn, but that's about all I remember until lap 120.

A group of cars were leading the race single-file, while a number of other drivers were packed together two-by-two. As the pack snaked down the backstretch, Sterling bumped Alan Kulwicki, knocking Alan down into Darrell. Darrell's car then went across the nose of Joe Ruttman's No. 75 Dinner Bell Oldsmobile - still one of my favorite paint schemes ever - and both cars were on their way in the grass.

Had they been at Talladega, where Kyle Petty had broken his leg in an 18-car accident (the first big crash I ever saw) two months prior, Darrell and Joe would have slid along harmlessly until they either came to a halt or banged into the inside dirt bank.

Unfortunately, they were at the home of the Rolex 24 Hour Sports Car race, and as the cars went over the paved chicane in the middle of the backstretch, they both caught air. Darrell's car landed on its right side and began a punishing series of flips that mangled every inch of sheet metal on his Lumina and ripped much of it clear from the chassis.

My parents were downright giddy. I was horrified. First I burst into tears. Then I got angry.

"He'll still come back and beat stupid Bill Elliott!" I roared - well, roared as well as a four-year-old can - between my sobs. And I actually believed it. Yes, I knew the car had been destroyed before my very eyes and Darrell had just been carted away on a stretcher, but I still thought somehow, some way, he could at least finish ahead of their beloved Elliott.

Of course, Bill wound up winning the race for his lone win of 1991. It was also his last win as driver of Harry Melling's No. 9 T-Bird and the last time Ernie Elliott crew-chiefed his younger brother to victory.

I was beyond humiliated in those final laps as Bill led, willing Geoff Bodine, Davey, Kenny Schrader, Ernie, heck I would have even rooted for Dale Earnhardt - Dale Earnhardt! - to allow me to salvage the day. But it was not to be.

Nowadays, I look back fondly upon Bill winning. I grew to love him by the end of '91, and he was basically my favorite driver after Davey's death two years later. Though my favorite driver is a yankee from Indiana, I also idolize my fellow North Georgia native.

It was huge for Bill to win the event as well. His mother and grandmother had both passed away earlier that year, and the whole No. 9 team was still reeling from the death of Mike Rich at Atlanta the previous November. Their future was up in the air, with Coors planning to cut back their racing involvement and Bill soon announcing he would be leaving for Junior's team to replace Bodine in the iconic No. 11 car. It was a great last hurrah of sorts for one of the most dominant Fords the sport has ever seen.

Still, when I think about that race, the finish or any other event over the last 40 laps hardly ever come to mind. I can't help but laugh heartily as I recall the immediate aftermath of Darrell's accident, with my parents and their kid engaging in a war of words and my absurd declaration that he would still topple their beloved Elliott.

Though I wound up on the losing end of things, it's a memory I wouldn't trade for the world and easily my favorite Firecracker 400 moment ever - so far. Here's to a barn-burner of a race Saturday night that shuffles the nostalgic totem pole. A 45th-career triumph for the true Awesome one would certainly do that.

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