However, they did not. After the controversial loss in the Daytona 500 in 1979, Junior and Cale didn’t have the kind of season expected of them – good, but not enough. There would not be a fourth straight title.
Nor would there be a championship in 1980, although it went down to the wire as Cale lost it in the last race to a rising star named Dale Earnhardt.
That, however, wasn’t the only loss for Junior. The 1980 season proved to be unexpectedly transitional.
Yes, he lost a title. Worse, in Cale, he lost a championship driver who had made the decision to leave after the ’80 campaign.
The question became, who would take Cale’s place?
In 1980, even Junior didn’t know.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
I would like to say that we recovered very nicely after the mess at Daytona, but if I did, I would be lying.
Now, it wasn’t a bad year – not by any means. It simply wasn’t the kind of season to which Cale and all our guys had become accustomed.
We won four races and had 22 finishes among the top 10. Those are the kinds of numbers of which most teams can only dream.
But we wound up fourth in points and our string of three straight championships came to an end. It was pretty much a shadow of what our three previous seasons had been.
The most interesting thing about it was that the championship was decided between two drivers who had been our most intense rivals over those three years – Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
Richard won the title by just 11 points over Darrell, which was, at the time, the closest finish in NASCAR history.
It was Richard’s seventh championship, which, although none of us knew it at the time, would be his last.
As for Darrell, as much as he had progressed since the start of his career, he had yet to win a title. I am pretty certain that it didn’t sit well with him.
Turns out I was right. More on that later.
NASCAR was really rolling in 1980. More sponsors and top quality drivers were coming on board. Its popularity had soared and the 1979 Daytona 500 had a lot to do with that.
With Cale I thought there was no reason, despite the slip in 1979, that we couldn’t win a fourth championship.
As always, it wasn’t going to be easy. In addition to the guys whom we always had to battle – Richard and Darrell – I thought we might have to fend off a kid named Dale Earnhardt, who had won 1979 Rookie of the Year honors and a race at Bristol.
I was right. Cale was in a battle with Dale for most of the season and it became obvious the championship was going to be decided between the two of them.
But then I got blindsided – and I think all of NASCAR did, too.
Cale came to me late in the summer and affirmed some gossip I had heard. He wanted to leave Junior Johnson & Associates.
He announced on Sept. 9 that he was going to join M.C. Anderson’s team. He had agreed to a three-year contract with the wealthy developer from Savannah, Ga., because Anderson would let him run a limited schedule.
Cale’s schedule would be cut back to 18 races from 31. That’s what he wanted. He told me he was tired of chasing championships and needed to spend more time at home.
In one way it surprised me because we were having a solid year and were in the thick of a points race for another championship.
In another way it didn’t and I understood. Cale had two daughters and he hadn’t been able to be around them as much as he would have liked over the years.
He wanted to change that. He wanted to run the major races only. He was a fine family man and I couldn’t really challenge the fact he wanted to offer more of himself to his daughters and wife Betty Jo.
It had to be a difficult decision for Cale. I wasn’t the only one to think that, heck, all of NASCAR did. He had won three straight championships and over 50 races with me over an eight-year period.
And some said: “He’s going to leave all this?”
Throughout NASCAR’s history when a driver and a team split for any reason – or even know they are going to do so at the end of a season – their level of performance has almost always dipped. It’s happened time and again, and, to be honest, it’s understandable.
That wasn’t the case with Cale and I. Quite the contrary. I think Cale wanted to go out with a fourth championship under his belt, in fact, I’d bet on it.
Heck, I wanted him to. Don’t think for a minute that, regardless of the future, I didn’t want another title for Junior Johnson & Associates.
I thought we might get it.
On Oct. 19, Cale won at Rockingham to move within 44 points of leader Dale, who, as I had suspected, was having a great year with Rod Osterlund’s team.
Cale chopped 77 points off Earnhardt’s lead. There were two races left in the season. “Do that again, Cale,” I thought, “and we’ll be in business.”
He came close. He won at Atlanta a couple of weeks later where Dale finished third. The result: Cale was just 29 points behind going into the year’s final race at Ontario, Calif.
On that 2.5-mile track Dale tried every way on earth to give us the title. He pitted too early in the first portion of the race and lost a lap.
He got that back as Cale and Darrell battled for the lead. Then, on the 183rd of 200 laps, Dale left the pits with only two lug nuts and was black-flagged. He lost nearly a lap to Cale.
But durned if he didn’t make up all that lost distance. I give him credit for an amazing accomplishment.
Cale did indeed finish ahead of Dale. He was third; Dale fifth. But it wasn’t enough.
Benny Parsons won the race. Ironically, he was the guy Anderson let go to make room for Cale.
We lost what would have been our fourth championship by a mere 19 points.
As distressing as that was for me there was a more troubling situation. I had no idea who my driver was going to be in 1981.
Now, I have to tell you that as much as the Cale and Dale’s championship war made headlines, just as many were made over Darrell, who made it clear and in no uncertain terms that he wanted out of his contract with DiGard Racing Co.
He had won a lot of races with that outfit but not a championship – as I’ve said.
I had a hunch where he wanted to go. So did others.
I was determined not to deal with a driver who was still under contract.
I didn’t know it at the time but that would change.