He thought, correctly, that three years’ worth of seasoning with driver Cale Yarborough, while it had already paid benefits, could provide bigger ones to come – and more of them.
It evolved that Yarborough and Junior Johnson & Associates did win their first title in 1976. While Yarborough captured nine victories, it was the team’s astounding consistency that brought the Winston Cup home.
The fact that Johnson, Yarborough and the team put together a string of four consecutive victories late in the season certainly didn’t hurt the cause one bit.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
When the 1976 Winston Cup season started, believe it or not, I wasn’t faced with a dilemma.
Unlike in the past I actually had a sponsor – Holly Farms, which had signed on early in 1975 after our team began the year without financial backing.
There was very little change in personnel and certainly Cale Yarborough was ready to go again in ’76. We didn’t have quite the year we expected in 1975 as Cale won only three races in 27 starts and we ended up ninth in the point standings.
But I was very optimistic, and there was a reason for that. We were in our third year together and I believed that it took all of that time for our team to mesh with Cale’s talents.
When we lost the championship in 1972 it kinda irritated me. I felt we had the right crew and that everyone, and me, associated with the team was doing their job to win the championship. They deserved to win it; they worked hard to win it.
But when we lost it like we did, I was determined to get back to the point where I had the driver and the team to win the championship.
We had some trial-and-error moments with Cale from the time he came on board in 1973, there’s no doubt about that. Yes, they were a good three years but they had some bad moments.
But, as I said earlier, I felt that starting in 1976 we had the team that could match Cale’s talents.
And I know for sure Cale’s only interests were winning races and championships. I never believed he had a hidden agenda, which I thought Bobby Allison had when he drove for us in 1972.
Cale won nine races in 1976, just one less than in 1974, and we won our first Winston Cup title by 195 points over Richard Petty, who was always in the championship hunt.
Even though Cale won fewer races than he did two years earlier – although three times as many as in ’75 – we were much more consistent. That made all the difference.
Cale had more finishes among the top five – 22 – and finished more times among the top 10 – 23 – than any other driver in NASCAR.
Finishes like that really pile up the points.
Cale wasn’t the dominant driver of 1976. That was David Pearson, who won 10 of the 22 races he entered with the Wood Brothers.
But David and the Woods ran only a limited schedule and were not in contention for the championship.
Let me tell you what consistency is all about.
When you have a guy who gives you 100 percent, who will hang the car on the wall every lap if he has to in order to win, then you are able to extend.
You extend the motors, the chassis setups, the gear arrangements and so forth and you don’t get into trouble when you do that.
That’s because you have a driver with determination yet who is smart enough to do the right thing under different circumstances.
Cale’s determination was unbelievable but he didn’t have to lean on a motor to the point where he tore it up. He didn’t have to hang himself out with the car and take a chance on tearing up the various combinations we had.
He pretty much stayed in the safety zone most of the time. You combine that with our ability to extend and try different things for different races, well, the results are going to be good – and good results always provide consistency.
That’s the way it was for us in 1976.
Now that I’ve said that it pains me to say that we started our season in the Daytona 500 with a blown engine after just one lap. We finished dead last.
It might have been the absolute worst beginning for any campaign, but we recovered nicely.
Cale won in the fifth race of the season, at Bristol. It was one of seven victories we earned on the short tracks in 1976.
We swept Bristol and North Wilkesboro. We also won at Martinsville, Nashville and Richmond. The only superspeedway races we won were the Firecracker 400 at Daytona (nice rebound for us) and at Dover in September.
But I think what really drove the championship home for us was the way we ran in September through the first week of October.
It started on Sept. 12, when Cale beat Bobby at Richmond. A week later he took the checkered flag at Dover ahead of Richard. On Sept. 26, Cale won the rain –shortened Martinsville race and then he followed that with his second win of the year at North Wilkesboro – where the governor, James Holshouser, had proclaimed “Cale Yarborough Day” in North Carolina.
That’s four consecutive victories in four consecutive weeks. Talk about consistency.
I reckon I don’t have to tell you how tickled I was over how everything turned out in 1976. I figured that because we had meshed as a team and were able to make the most of our cars and Cale’s skills, we could do it all again in 1977.
I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but things would turn out to be a tad different. For one thing, Cale and I had our first real disagreement.
Then we went head-to-head, toe-to-toe and lip-to-lip with a mouthy driver from Tennessee named Darrell Waltrip.