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.
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.
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.