The Story Of The ‘79 Daytona 500? I Still Don’t Like The Ending

After Junior and Cale Yarborough won a third consecutive Winston Cup championship in 1978, they started the ’79 season with a great deal of optimism and a new sponsor.

The odds of achieving a fourth-straight title were long, but Junior Johnson & Associates had already bucked the odds with a trio of championships.

Many NASCAR observers felt the team, long established as perhaps the best in stock car racing, certainly had what it took – driver, equipment, and personnel – to win another title.

Things started out well enough as Yarborough finished third on the road course in Riverside, Calif., the first race of the season.

Then it was on to the Daytona 500.

No one could have predicted what would happen in that race, considered one of the greatest in NASCAR’s history and credited – because it was broadcast nationally on TV by CBS – as the force that propelled stock car racing into the national consciousness.

To be honest, in 1979, Junior could not have cared less about any of that.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

 

 

For me, when it comes to the 1979 Winston Cup season, believe me, I know the story everyone wants to hear.

I’ve heard it, told it and even seen it about a million times and, to this day, I still don’t like the ending.

Before we get to the 1979 Daytona 500 – reckon you knew that’s what I was talking about, right? – I’d like to tell you about a major change at Junior Johnson & Associates that took place before the season began.

We would continue to race Oldsmobiles and roll out a Chevrolet at selected races, but they would have new colors – mostly blue and white, since we landed the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch and its product, Busch Beer.

It was quite a coup for us and it was, for me, the beginning of a relationship with Anheuser-Busch that would last for many years. The company also became a big player in NASCAR itself.

On to Daytona …

Everyone was aware that the Daytona 500 was going to be broadcast nationally by CBS. It was going to be flag-to-flag coverage, a first for NASCAR.

On the morning of Feb. 18, the day of the race, we learned that a massive snowstorm had struck most of the country. People stayed home and to pass the time, millions of them decided to tune in the race and see what this NASCAR stuff was all about.

We were about to race in front of the largest audience in NASCAR’s history.

If there’s not enough motivation to win the Daytona 500 simply because it’s NASCAR’s most prestigious race, believe me, there’s more than enough when that many folks are watching.

We figured we could win. Why not? We were coming off three straight championships and Cale was the 500 winner in 1977.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Buddy Baker, who loved the superspeedways, was the pole winner in an Olds with a record speed of 196.049 mph.

Donnie Allison, in Hoss Ellington’s Olds, was also on the front row. Then there was old nemesis Darrell Waltrip, who had already won earlier at Riverside, along with a 125-miler and the Sportsman 300 at Daytona.

As optimistic as we were, I thought it was all over not long after the race started. On just the 32nd of 200 laps, Cale, Donnie and his brother Bobby crashed along the backstretch.

Donnie lost a lap. Cale got stuck in the mud and lost three laps. I figured we were finished and so did just about everyone else.

But, fortunately, some timely caution periods allowed Cale to return to the lead lap. Donnie got there, too.

With 50 laps to go Cale and Donnie hooked up in the draft and they were gone. They left the field behind. It was obvious they were going to determine the outcome.

Remember, this was in the day of the “slingshot” pass, which the guy running second could utilize to quickly take the lead.

I had figured that out myself nearly two decades earlier.

Sure enough, on the last lap the two drivers came out of the second turn and headed down the backstretch. Cale was exactly where I wanted him to be – right behind Donnie.

He moved to the low side of the track to make the pass. Then, well, I could hardly believe what I saw – Donnie moved down to make the block. But he did a lot more than that. He forced Cale into the grass.

Being the type of driver he was, Cale did not back off – and I darn sure didn’t want him go.

But he did call me on the radio earlier and told me that he thought Bobby had been waiting on him and was going to wreck him – stuff like that.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Cale was talking about but I think he thought Bobby was going to wreck him to keep him from catching Donnie.

I told Cale, “Just win the race. Catch Donnie and do your job.”

The next thing I knew, those two Oldsmobiles were bouncing off each other. They would split and then hit again. Then they locked together, hit the wall in the third turn and slid into the grass, where they stopped.

Richard Petty was running a distant third and with Cale and Donnie out of the way, all he had to do was keep Waltrip at bay to win the Daytona 500 – which is exactly what he did.

Of course, I didn’t hear Ken Squier’s call on CBS about a fistfight in the infield. I didn’t know, at first, that Bobby had stopped in the third turn – for reasons I can’t imagine – and that he, Cale and Donnie had gotten into it.

I didn’t know any of this until somebody came running up to me in the garage after the wreck and said all three of ‘em where over there fighting.

Naturally, I was very upset. Here my driver had made up three lost laps and had put himself in position to win the race – and he didn’t.

The person that told me about the fight asked me if I was going to do something about it. Dumb question.

“Hell no,” I said. “Let ‘em kill each other as far as I’m concerned. This day is over for me.”

A day after the race, NASCAR put the blame on Donnie – and in my opinion, that’s exactly where it belonged. And as for Bobby, he didn’t have any business stopping and instigating the fight, as far as I was concerned.

Bobby, Cale and Donnie were all fined $6,000. Donnie was given a severe probation. Then he and Bobby filed an appeal and NASCAR changed everything.

The fines stood at $6,000 but $1,000 would be given back per race over the next five events. The remainder of the money would be put into the point fund.

Huh?

The facts spoke for themselves. Donnie ran Cale plumb into the grass. Then Bobby steps in and it ain’t none of his business. He should have let Cale and Donnie settle it between themselves. Some people stick their noses in places where they ain’t got no damn business.

I knew some of the people who made the judgment and their first call was the right call. Fines all around and, at the least, probation for Donnie.

This business of returning money just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially where the Allisons were concerned.

They say because of the race’s conclusion – and all that was involved – and the massive audience that had seen it, NASCAR became more popular than it could have imagined.

You know, I believe that.

But at the time I really didn’t care. All I knew was that we had lost a race we shouldn’t have.

And that’s not a good way to start any season.

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Comments

  1. Cosmo says:

    Great reminiscence. Maybe we can get a couple of current drivers, say Kyle Busch and one of his several detractors, to wreck and get into a fight to amuse us and boost TV ratings. Or maybe a Childress/Busch rematch?

  2. Jerkd3 says:

    This is the best nascar column by far. thanks junior!

  3. Arttidesco says:

    Great to hear your first hand account of the story, as you say Cale should have won !

  4. Herb S. says:

    It’s hard to believe that anyone but the Allison’s and a few of their rabid fans could buy the story that Donnie sticks by, that Cale ran into him. Well I guess Cale did run into Donnie, but he was desperately trying to defend himself. Cale knew that if his left side wheels hit the mud, it was all over, he would not win, and at those speeds his life was in danger. The last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 was the most highly publicized case of road rage in history.

    Donnie screwed up, big time. If he had used his head he would have had a ‘respectable’ second place finish. But would that make sense to a driver in the heat of battle, with a Daytona 500 win just a half a lap away? Some yes, but Donnie, no. I can understand that. Some drivers are just not wired like that, to back off and get what you can get. Today, they might, back then things were different. No corporate decisions, no cooler heads prevailing, it was balls to the wall, either you won or you lost!

    Can’t blame Junior for being mad. Cale had it knocked, and not only did they not win a huge race that they should have, but an awesome race car was really torn up. Plus, to add insult to injury, the driver got whooped on national television. Well, maybe whooped a little bit. Let’s just say he got the ‘Hueytown Shuffle’ put on him.

    The photo illustrates Bobby’s superior skills, and Cale’s short reach. The tale of the tape, with a little back up from Donnie meant that Cale, for those few seconds in time, didn’t stand a chance. Like I say, few seconds, because that dust up which was hardly a real fight, did nothing to tarnish the image of the great Cale Yarborough. Nothing at all. In fact it made him even more famous.

    So while I watched two beautiful Oldsmobiles smash each other to piles of junk, parts and pieces scattering along the high banks of Daytona, here came my hero, The King, in his Petty Oldsmobile. Man, you could have heard me hollering for three city blocks, I was so excited. Richard’s Victory Circle interview with Brock Yates was one for the books, too.

    From my standpoint, watching the whole race from snowbound New York City, it was a great race, and I still believe that as primitive as it was, the CBS coverage was excellent for it’s time. Ken Squier, David Hobbs and their associates really stepped to the plate for the first ever flag to flag NASCAR race on television, that would prove to be a game changer for the sport.

    I have the 1979 Daytona 500 on tape, and still watch it once in awhile. It’s still one of the greatest of ‘The All American Race’.

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