Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Flashback: 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona when John Andretti won for Cale Yarborough

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Twenty years ago, Jeff Gordon won his first Daytona 500.

You knew that already. Or you’ve been reminded recently thanks to regular airings of the abridged broadcast on Fox Sports 1 or the network’s (really good) documentary about the race.

John Andretti, driving Cale Yarborough’s No. 98 Ford,  was Yarborough’s first and only NASCAR Cup Series victory as a car owner. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

However, do you remember what happened 20 years ago this week?

An Andretti won at Daytona.

Thirty years after Mario Andretti won his only Daytona 500, his nephew John Andretti put his name in the history books by winning the 1997 Firecr … I mean, the Pepsi … wait, the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.

You know what I mean.

On July 5, 1997, the 34-year-old Andretti won his first Cup race, what was then the Pepsi 400.

That weekend Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were exterminating  space bugs in theaters in Men in Black. In music, the top song was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy … I mean P. Diddy. No, it’s Sean Combs. Yeah, that’s it.

You know what I mean.

When ESPN began its broadcast of the race, Andretti was third on the grid. He was next to Gordon and behind the Richard Childress Racing front row of Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt. The latter was in the midst of his first winless season since 1981.

To get the audience up to speed, ESPN featured a series of four musical montages to recap the season to date.

The songs of choice are in included in the below Spotify playlist.

In none of the storylines set up by those montages was Andretti’s name mentioned.

He drove the No. 98 RCA Ford owned by Cale Yarborough, who himself won at Daytona nine times in his racing career. Andretti was in his fourth full year of Cup racing and was three years removed from being the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 in the same day.

As the field came to the green, Andretti was 27th in the points and had only one top-10 finish through 15 races, a fourth-place finish at Talladega.

By Lap 3, Andretti was in the lead after having led only 20 laps the whole season – 19 at Talladega and one at Pocono.

On Lap 12, announcer Bob Jenkins made first mention of Andretti seeking his first Cup win. The son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother, Aldo, John Andretti made his first NASCAR start in October 1993 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for Tex Powell.

By July 1997, the cousin to Michael Andretti had only earned four top fives in 109 starts.

Here’s an observation on restrictor-plate racing in the mid-1990s – it was better.

This isn’t intended to be a typical “the racing then was better” statement.

In the years since tandem drafting was banned, restrictor-plate racing has largely become a large pack of cars where moves must be cherry picked at the right time and nothing can change for laps on end.

But in 1997, 10 years into the plate era, the field wasn’t bunched together, almost held against its will. While still close in proximity, drivers had room to maneuver in a slightly strung out snake, with no clearly defined lines. A driver could make something happen more easily without the risk of starting the “Big One.”

Instead of keeping your eyes on the screen waiting for chaos to break out, you were left waiting to see who made a push toward the front.

And when something bad did happen, chances were half the field wasn’t taken out … probably.

This was the case on Lap 33, when Jimmy Spencer got turned on the backstretch and only Chad Little and Mike Skinner were caught in it.

It resulted in the first pit stops of the day and a near scare for Andretti as he left the pits and Gordon nearly took him out at the pit exit.

He restarted second behind Bill Elliott and had the lead back by the time the field got to Turn 4.

Andretti’s previous career best for laps led was 41 in the 1995 Southern 500. In this race, he led 80 of the first 89 laps.

All the videos in the post are from a YouTube video that is the raw satellite feed from the ESPN broadcast, which means you don’t see the commercials.

During a commercial break with 95 laps to go, pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch radioed to the booth the following as Andretti led Ward Burton and Ken Schrader:

“Hey guys, I don’t know if you can get a shot of him, but Cale Yarborough is on top of the RCA truck in the garage and he’s so excited. He’s taking on the radio, he’s driving the race car. He’s cracking the guys up in the pit. He’s saying, ‘John, John, go help the 3, help that 4, help that 3, help that 4.’ They’re just dying. They said he’s jumping up and down on top of the truck.”

ESPN never got a shot of him.

Yarborough had reason to be excited. A 83-time Cup winner as a driver, Yarborough was a car owner from 1987 – when he drove for himself – to 1999. He fielded cars for Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope and Jeremy Mayfield. Andretti replaced Mayfield with eight races left in the 1996 season.

In 371 races, Andretti’s win would be the only visit to victory lane for Yarborough as an owner.

“And I was just as happy walking in there as I was when I was driving in there,” Yarborough said.

With 43 laps to go, Andretti pulled off a maneuver that would be declared illegal in today’s NASCAR. Going down the backstretch, Andretti dove his No. 98 Ford down below the dotted white line to get by Rusty Wallace into fifth.

This was similar to the move Gordon made on Bill Elliott six months earlier on the frontstretch that eventually led to him winning the Daytona 500.

Speaking of Gordon.

The 1995 Cup champion was on his way to his second title that season. He would do it on the back of 10 wins, which matched his total from 1996. From 1995-97, the “Rainbow Warriors” won 27 times and they would add a modern record 13 in 1998.

By July 1997, many in the grandstands were sick of it.

So, when Gordon smacked the backstretch wall on Lap 125, they let their pleasure be known as the No. 24 limped to pits.

If you want to party like it’s 1997, you have my permission to crank this up while you sip a cold Pepsi or a Coca-Cola depending on your sponsor obligations.

When the race went green with 30 to go, Andretti was second. A lap later he had to take the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Spencer three-wide to make a clear path to Mark Martin.

Now Andretti was experiencing déjà vu. Earlier in the year, Andretti finished fourth to Martin in the caution free Winston 500 at Talladega, a race he had the pole for and led 19 laps of early on. That day, no one could get out of line to take a shot at Martin in the closing laps.

“I got behind Mark and thought, ‘Not like Talladega again,’” Andretti said later, according to the Associated Press. “Luckily for me Bill Elliott pushed me through. I guess I owe Bill a check for this.”

The drafting help from Elliott came on Lap 137 after coordination between the two team’s spotters.

By the time there was 13 laps to go, The Intimidator was stalking his prey in the form of Andretti. Earnhardt was running in second, followed by Dale Jarrett and Martin.

The end of the race was heating up when the final caution of the race waved for a five-car crash in Turns 1 and 2 with four to go.

As the field raced back to the flag – which was still a thing at this point – ESPN cameras caught the No. 98 crew mildly celebrating, thinking the race was over.

They were wrong.

The wreck was cleaned in time for a final lap, with the green and white flag being displayed together.

When they waved, Andretti had a rear-view mirror full of a certain black car.

As Andretti celebrated his win, Ward Burton was put on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital to be tested for a concussion, but results were negative.

Also negative were driver reactions to how the race ended.

“That wasn’t a shootout,” Earnhardt said. “That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that.”

Said Kyle Petty, “What they just had is a recipe for somebody getting hurt real bad. NASCAR got what they wanted, the fans didn’t get anything because they saw some of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won. Why didn’t we just end it under caution?”

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO: John Andretti

When it came to NASCAR, Andretti wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

He won once more in 393 Cup starts. Two years later, while in his second stint in the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises, Andretti found victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after leading only the final four laps.

His last full-time season came in 2002.

From 2003-10 Andretti competed sporadically in Cup while competing in one full Xfinity campaign in 2006.

His final NASCAR start came in the 2010 Daytona 500, where he finished 38th for Front Row Motorsports after a crash.

From 2007-11, he made 10 starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The final four, which included three attempts at the Indianapolis 500, were in a No. 43 Honda co-owned by Andretti Autosport and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Andretti returned to the spotlight earlier this year at the age of 54 with the news that had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.

On May 28, every car in both the Indy 500 and Coke 600 displayed decals supporting Andretti and advocating for people to get colonoscopies.

This is the third in an occasional series looking back at classic NASCAR races (at least those that are on YouTube).

Previously

Dale Earnhardt’s final Martinsville win in 1995

Bill Elliott’s 1985 Talladega win

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John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.