77 days until Daytona: The strange story of NASCAR’s No. 77

It’s 77 days until Daytona, making it an appropriate time to tell the strange story of the No. 77 car in NASCAR history.

Despite 840 starts in the Premier Series across 67 years – dating back to the very start of NASCAR in 1949 and even including one start by the late Dale Earnhardt at Atlanta in 1976 – it has gone to Victory Lane just one time.

The one win by the No. 77 in NASCAR history came by none other than Joe Lee Johnson on Aug. 9, 1959 at the Nashville Fairgrounds in Tennessee. Johnson led exactly one lap – the only one that mattered, as racers like to say.

Johnson, a Tennesse native who hailed from Tennesse, is notable for the one other race he won in his NASCAR career as well.

That came in June of 1960, when Johnson won the inaugural World 600 – the first race ever held at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the predecessor to the 600-mile race that today is called the Coca-Cola 600.

That race was held under a cloud of controversy because the track, in truth, wasn’t ready. Every time cars took to it, the asphalt crumbled and started flying every which way.

The night before the race, 800 tons of asphalt were removed and replaced in the track’s four corners. The new asphalt was covered by 2,000 gallons of liquid rubber sealer, or “bear grease.”

Drivers were so concerned about the condition of the track that after winning the pole, future NASCAR Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts told reporters, “I don’t believe anybody could finish this race in a tank.”

As the race progressed, big-name drivers fell by the wayside one by one – but Johnson hung in there. By Lap 250, he was fourth. By Lap 300, with 100 to go, he was second – but five laps down to leader Jack Smith, who was dominating the day.

After leading a total of 198 laps, though, Smith was undone by a chunk of flying asphalt that ruptured his car’s metal gas tank.

Smith’s demise was Johnson’s good fortune. He inherited the lead with 48 laps to go and went on to win the only other race of his career – but not in the No. 77. He drove the No. 98 that day.

Erik Jones will pilot the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing in 2017 and look to change the fortunes of the car number.