There was reason for Junior to be optimistic. His team and driver remained intact and would campaign a new car approved by NASCAR.
It was the slope-nosed Chevrolet Laguna S-3, judged by nearly everyone to be the car to beat on the superspeedways.
Of course, Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t the only team that would race the car in 1977. Another was the fledgling DiGard Racing Co., which had Darrell Waltrip as its driver.
Waltrip won two short-track races for DiGard in 1975 and 1976. But he was far from happy. His team failed to finish 16 of 30 races in 1976.
That did not sit well with the ambitious, brash Waltrip, a Kentucky native who had never shied away from expressing his opinions.
Crew chief Mario Rossi was gone before the season started. Replacement David Ifft lasted a month and the job was handed to Buddy Parrott.
As much turmoil as there was at DiGard, all went smoothly for Junior’s team – for the most part, anyway.
It and Junior Johnson & Associates won the most races.
It was just a matter of time before the teams, and their drivers, were at loggerheads.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
My faith in Cale and the team was rewarded just as the season began.
We won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race and followed that with a victory at Richmond one week later.
Then we went on our usual short-track blitz, winning at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville. To be honest, everyone thought our team was the one to beat on half-milers, but that didn’t happen often.
Then we went on to win at Dover and Michigan. Cale led the point standings for the first 17 races of the season and, to tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty cocky.
But at Daytona on July 4, we suffered a broken transmission and finished 23rd, 14 laps down, to winner Richard Petty, who had been dogging us in the points all season long. Cale’s lead shrank to 17 points over Petty.
Twelve days later at Nashville, Cale finished a respectable fourth as Darrell Waltrip won. Waltrip, by the way, had been steadily improving – and piling up victories – with DiGard.
We came out of that race with a 12-point lead over Petty.
Then we lost our advantage at Pocono. Cale finished sixth and Petty was the runnerup to Benny Parsons. We lost the points lead for the first time that season as Petty swept into an eight-point lead.
As disappointing as that was I knew it was a lead of little substance. We could get it back in the very next race.
Which we did at Talladega after Cale finished second to Donnie Allison, who had to get out of Hoss Ellington’s Chevrolet after the heat got to him
His relief driver? Waltrip. A bit ironic don’t you think?
Everyone on our team was happy that we had retaken the points lead by 32 over Petty. That is, everyone but a single individual – and that was Cale.
For some reason he thought our Chevrolet was junk. He sounded off about it afterward. He said he had the sorriest Chevrolet in the race and that if he had won, “I’d be in court Monday morning for stealing.”
I thought to myself, “What the hell?” Here we finish second, retake the points lead and Cale has the audacity to criticize our Chevrolet? I admit I was pretty steamed.
“We don’t have to listen to a bunch of lip from him.”
And I meant it. I wasn’t going to tolerate any of Cale’s guff. I know for a fact he was never one not to speak up when things bothered him. But he knew I meant what I said.
We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Cale would lead the points standings for the remainder of the year and win a second consecutive Winston Cup title.
For us, that was the end of the verbal confrontations, but not those on the track.
In the Southern 500 at Darlington, Cale and Waltrip went head-to-head, and lip-to-lip, for the first time.
They staged a terrific battle for position until, on lap 277 of 367, they finally crashed. Waltrip tapped the rear of D.K. Ulrich’s car, sending him into our Chevrolet. Terry Bivins became involved in the four-car melee. Everyone suffered extensive damage.
Afterward, Ulrich went up to Cale and asked, “You knocked the hell out of me. Why did you hit me?”
Cale told him the truth. He said he wasn’t the culprit, Waltrip was. “I didn’t touch you. Ol’ Jaws hit you.”
“Who?” Ulrich asked.
“Jaws,” Cale heatedly said. “It was ol’ Jaws Waltrip.”
Cale had given Waltrip his lasting nickname – that of the famous movie shark.
I thought that was pretty funny. But I knew Waltrip well enough to know he wasn’t going to take it. He would, somehow, retaliate.
At Martinsville in intense, searing heat, Cale won. But he was completely physically spent. He was red-faced, drenched in sweat and, to be honest, looked like a prisoner of war.
He told the media the length of Martinsville’s races should be cut from 500 laps. It had gotten to the point where driver fatigue was more dangerous than actual racing.
He added that, as far as physical punishment, Martinsville was the absolute worst.
If Cale had asked my opinion, I would have told him to shut up. I knew that the track’s bulldog president, Clay Earles, wasn’t going to stand for his remarks.
He didn’t. He said he would not reduce the length of his races and if drivers didn’t like it, they could stay away.
A week later at North Wilkesboro, Waltrip got his chance. He outran Cale to win and promptly fired the next shot in the verbal war.
“I’d have to say this was a one-and-a-half or two on the ‘Cale Scale’,” he said. Everyone knew what he meant.
“I think Cale’s problem could be his years. I know I’m finding out I can’t do the things I did 10 years ago.”
They weren’t that far apart in years. Cale was 38 years old, Waltrip 30.
Me? I thought the whole thing was funny. I could see where Waltrip was coming from. Cale was on top of the heap and Waltrip did everything he could to knock him off, one way or another.
I got a few chuckles but I stayed out of it. I could easily afford to. After North Wilkesboro we had a 293-point lead over Petty. We won the championship three weeks later at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season. Cale won nine races that year.
Waltrip finished fourth in points with six victories, his best season with DiGard. I knew he was going to be a force in the future.
What I didn’t know is that within a short time, I would become more involved with him than ever I could imagine.