As the Pepsi Firecracker 400 wound down on July 4, 1987 at Daytona International Speedway, it appeared that NASCAR veteran Dave Marcis was going to light a sparkler of an Independence Day upset.
Marcis, a team/owner driver with nominal sponsorship compared to that of the Cup Series' larger operations, once whipped to a lead of almost 20 seconds on the famous 2.5-mile track.
But then a series of events unfolded that turned the race upside down, brought a surprising victory to Bobby Allison and made that Fourth Of July battle 25 years ago one of the most memorable summertime shows in Daytona's history.
The Cup Series teams return to the site of those holiday fireworks once again this week for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night.
Back to a quarter century ago ...
Marcis, driving a Chevrolet, took the lead on the 144th of the race's 160 laps and began pulling away. Then, Buddy Baker and Ken Schrader, in an Olds and a Ford, respectively, hooked up in an aerodynamic draft and blazed into Marcis' advantage.
Still, to me and most of my peers in the press box, it appeared that time and laps would run out before anyone could overtake Marcis. He appeared home free for the checkered flag unless there was a caution flag.
Unfortunately for Marcis, known to some in the press corps as "Poor Ol' Dave" because of his seemingly consistent bad luck, the yellow flag had to be shown. With nine laps to go Rick Wilson's Olds slammed hard into the wall.
Marcis' big lead was gone, and now Baker, Schrader and a pack of others with very fast cars were lined up immediately behind him for the restart with five laps remaining. Taking the green in 13th place, and little noticed, was Allison in his Buick.
The future NASCAR Hall Of Famer had spent most of the race a lap down after an early incident with Sterling Marlin and Cale Yarborough forced him into an unscheduled pit stop for repairs to his car. Hardly anyone, including the radio and TV announcers, had noticed that Allison had unlapped himself when the caution lights showed for Wilson's wreck. And besides, there seemed no way he could pass 12 cars in five laps.
I vividly recall my pal Clyde Bolton, the great columnist from the Birmingham News and a close friend of Alabamian Allison, rising from his seat in the press box and walking over to me. "Tom, Bobby is going to win this race," Clyde declared. "I have been tracking him, and for some time now he has had the fastest car out there."
"Isn't he a lap down?" I said.
About this time Allison's No. 22 was flashing onto he scoreboard as he mounted a furious, breathtaking charge. NASCAR officials finally had figured it out that he'd made up the lost lap. (There was no computerized scoring in those days).
On Allison came, surging into the lead on the 159th lap and pulling away.
As Allison swept to the checkered flag four seconds ahead of Baker, calamity struck a bit further back. Schrader had bobbled entering the homestretch tri-oval, swerved and gone airborne. Schrader's car slammed down right into the windshield of Harry Gant's Chevy.
It was a violent, scary crash, but neither driver was hurt.
Characteristically, Allison assessed his stunning drive to Victory Lane in a calm manner: "I saw that my number wasn't on the scoreboard, but I knew where I stood and I trusted NASCAR to figure it out...I think most of the other crews were aware that we had made up the lap we had been behind."
Allison credited a pit call for enabling him to pass so many rivals in the closing laps.
"During the caution for Rick Wilson's wreck we took on four new tires," said the victor. "I don't think anyone else did that. It really made the difference."
Allison led only once in the race...For those final two laps.
Baker pulled to the gas pumps in the garage area for a mandatory stop after the race, thinking he had won.
"I didn't know No. 22 (Allison) had unlapped himself, so I was pretty surprised when someone told me I finished second," said Buddy. "Oh, well, on the positive side, I made some pretty hellacious moves to get where I got."
Marcis finished third, followed by Darrell Waltrip and Morgan Shepherd. Scharder wound up seventh and Gant ninth.
"I really believe the race was ours until that doggone caution flag toward the end," said Marcis. "I think I was far enough ahead that no one could have caught me."
Of the booming crash, Schrader said, "I knew I had flipped, but I wasn't sure who I had hit. Looking back, I didn't even let off the accelerator while I was upside down."
Schrader slid across the finish line with his car on its roof.
"I was trying to slingshot past Schrader for a better position, but he came plowin' down the track and then came back up," said Gant. "He slid out of sight, then all of a sudden there he was again, upside down and flying through the air. There was nothing I could do but hit him. It felt and looked like someone had dropped a car right into my lap."
Schrader managed a grin.
"The whole thing probably looked a lot worse than it really was."
It looked horrifying, Kenny, and it was indeed bad.
The crash, and Allison's great rally, are why so many of us remember the Daytona race of a quarter-century ago so well.