Before the race was moved to the NASCAR Cup Series playoff cutoffs, the July 4th race at Daytona International Speedway was as big a tradition as its other race, the Daytona 500.
The fact that the race is always run on the 4th of July weekend makes the race unique, and there’s nothing better than seeing cars in special patriotic paint schemes fly past each other in drafts at speeds of over 200 mph.
The race has also produced some of the greatest moments in NASCAR history. David Ragan earned his first career victory in 2011 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked through the field on the final restart to win the series’ first race back at Daytona since his father’s death in the final lap of the Daytona 500. It was also the race where Richard Petty scored his 200th and final career win in 1984 over then-President Ronald Reagan.
But a year after that iconic Petty victory, the race produced one of the most improbable and internally controversial victories in the modern era, resulting in the driver leaving his championship team, taking his sponsor with him, and effectively ending the team.
Digard Racing, relatively fresh off a 1983 championship win with driver Bobby Allison, was looking for ways to improve and get back into championship contention with Allison still behind the wheel. So THis team decided to field an additional car for little-known driver Greg Sachs in the 1985 Firecracker 400.
The car was designed and entered with the intention of being a research and development (R&D) car: the team brought several setups to the race and planned to do as many tests as possible to gather data and information that the team could use on the Allison. Car in future years. The unsponsored number 10 was not designed to compete in the race, only for testing.
Crew chief Gary Nelson was tasked with exploring different setups, mainly as a means of finding a way to eliminate Superspeedway AC Bill Elliott. All the way to the green flag, the plan was still effective.
But then something happened. Whatever setup Nelson initially put on the car made Sacks’ car faster. As in, faster wins the race. So the team essentially scrapped the R&D plan and let Sacks compete.
And you don’t know? Sacks took home his first – and only – career win, shocking the entire field.
Suddenly, the 32-year-old from Mattituck, New York, who no one had heard of before the race, was now a winner at NASCAR’s highest point. Digard Racing was stunned as was Sachs in victory lane. Everyone on the team was happy for Sacks, except one: his teammates.
A few days after Sachs’ miracle disappointment at Daytona, Allison abruptly left the team. Ellison was not a fan of multi-car teams, and he was reportedly so angry that the team was distracted by an R&D car that he left the team and ended up driving his own cars for the remainder of the 1985 season. In 1986, he joined Stavola Brothers Racing and took the Miller sponsorship with him at Digard.
Allison’s sudden departure, along with the loss of Miller as a sponsor, put Digard Racing in a predicament. After an ugly end to their relationship with Darrell Waltrip and Gatorade, the team ran into some financial trouble before signing Allison and Miller in 1982.
Now the team finds itself where it was a few years ago, at an arguably uglier end than before — Ellison won a championship with the team and had 16 career wins at the time of his departure, including his second Daytona. 500 in 1982.
The final nail in the team’s coffin came when Robert Yates, the team’s engine builder since 1976, also left in 1986. The team tried to hang on but folded in 1987.
Allison won three more races with Stavola Brothers Racing, the last being his third Daytona 500 in 1988 — you know, the iconic father-son 1-2 finish with Davy Allison? Unfortunately, two horrific accidents marred the end of Ellison’s career – his infamous 1987 impact with the catchfence at Talladega Superspeedway that led to the invention and implementation of restrictor plates, and his career-ending crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988 that nearly claimed his life. Despite this, his legacy is cemented in NASCAR history, as he is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is tied with Waltrip for fourth on the all-time wins list at 84.
For Sacks, the Daytona upset was the only win of his Cup Series career. He went on to win the NASCAR Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) at Talladega in 1996, another upset, but these two wins would be the only times Sacks would visit victory lane in NASCAR’s premier series.
His last start in NASCAR was in 2010, where he raced solo for JR Motorsports with sponsorship from his own beverage company, Grand Touring Vodka. It started 25 years after his Daytona win, and he went from seventh to 21st (for reference, this was the same race that Earnhardt Jr. won, driving the Wrangler-sponsored No. 3 that seems to match the scheme his father drove. Sacks won in 1985 same race).
Despite never having success in NASCAR, Sacks’ status as a one-win wonder will always be one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. Unfortunately, the win will also be remembered as the catalyst to finally shut down the team he beat.
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