The unwritten rule going into a turn on the last lap of a race this important is, 'You took chances all day long, so now is the time to go for broke.' You don't run into somebody on purpose, but you don't get overly concerned with him, either."
So said Richard Petty on Sunday after he had won the Daytona 500 thanks to the two leaders crashing into each other on the next-to-last turn of the race.
It would be safe to say that Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison weren't overly concerned about each other—at least not each other's welfare—on the last lap of the 500. With 499 miles and one wild spin already behind them, Allison led Yarborough by a car length. Earlier in the race, Yarborough had twice shot past Allison, and they both knew he was capable of doing it again. As they approached Turn 3, Yarborough's car dropped beneath Allison and drew up alongside him on the back straight. Donnie moved down to prevent the pass. To complicate matters, Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother, was ahead of Yarborough. Cale had two choices: slow down and lose the race or try getting by down on the grass, which is really no choice at all for a racer. With two wheels riding on the grass slickened from an overnight rain, Yarborough's blue-and-white Olds-mobile was hit by the left side of Allison's maroon Olds. They bounced off each other several times as they careened up into the cement retaining wall and then back down across the track once again, coming to rest at last on the grass verge. Petty, half a lap behind in third place, breezed by their wreckage and held off Darrell Waltrip and A. J. Foyt at the flag. Meanwhile, Donnie and Cale, soon joined by Bobby, were duking it out across the track by Turn 3.
Speaking generally, because he hadn't seen the crash and wasn't about to place any blame, Petty said, "If you're leading, you can cut the other guy off, but you always give him a way out. You can run him down to the flat, but you don't run him into the dirt."
February 26, 1979
As the two demolished Oldsmobiles were towed back to their garages, Yarborough was quivering with rage. "They double-teamed me," he fumed. "Bobby held me up and waited on Donnie so they could block me out. I run up on the back of Bobby, and Donnie came down on the apron and knocked me on the grass. He came all the way down and carried me into the mud. I was in the dirt before we even touched. My left wheels were in the dirt, and he knocked me all the way in. I knew it was going to happen. I just couldn't do anything about it. So I knocked the hell out of him. We just kept bumping into each other all the way into the wall.
"I got out of my car and went over to Donnie's car and said, 'That's the worst thing I ever seen.' Then Bobby came over. I asked him why he slowed down. Then I swung at him. Then all three of us went at it. That was the first fistfight I've been in since I was a teen-ager.
"I knew how to win the race. I had the race won, wasn't any doubt about it. I had him beat. He knew it, too.
"You can be sure I'll remember it. If NASCAR don't disqualify them two—I mean suspend them—there ain't no justice in NASCAR, that's all I got to say."
Donnie, wearing a look that could kill, said, "I was prepared for anything. I wasn't fixing to back off. I felt like I had to keep from getting knocked out. I said to myself, if I hit that damn wall he was going to hit it just as hard as I was.
"I don't think Bobby slowed down. I had made up my mind I was going to go low regardless of what Bobby did. If Cale was going to pass me he was going to have to do it high. I was as low as you can go on the racetrack, and he was lower than me. I came off the corner and he just went off the damn racetrack.
"After we hit the wall, he came over and started calling me a son of a bitch and a dirty bastard. Bobby had stopped, and he punched at Bobby through his window screen. When Bobby got out of his car, Cale started hitting him with his helmet. If he had hit me, I'd have beat his brains out.
"Won't do any good to say anything else."
Well, that seems to be quite enough. Especially considering it had been the second time that afternoon those three had found themselves sliding in the mud, not to mention slinging it. On Lap 32 Donnie had led Bobby and Yarborough when Bobby drifted up into his brother, tapped him in the rear quarter panel and sent him into a backward slide down the back straight, with the entire 41-car field coming at him at nearly 195 mph. Yarborough dived down to the infield to avoid them, and everyone else slipped by without incident.
After they had been pushed out of the mud and had pitted for adjustments, Yarborough found himself three laps behind, Bobby two, Donnie one. The race was barely restarted when a six-car crash in Turn 4 knocked out David Pearson and brought out the yellow flag again. While 120,000 pairs of eyes were on the mess, a car called the "Ghost" was pushed unnoticed behind the pit wall, its ignition system having never worked from the start.
The Ghost, another Olds, this one driven by Buddy Baker, had turned a record qualifying lap of 196.049 mph the previous Sunday. Then, on Thursday, Baker had backed that up by winning a 125-mile warmup race for the 500. While the Ghost was the car to beat, its qualifying mark was largely a result of the speedway's new surface, which ironed out many of the infamous bumps and boosted speeds by nearly 10 mph. "Racing at Daytona used to be like playing basketball in a pair of loafers," says Waltrip.
"Used to be," the man says. But some of the drivers of the dozen or so cars that either spun or crashed—contributing to a total of seven yellow flags for 57 of the 200 laps and holding Petty's average speed to 143.977 mph—might think their cars are still wearing loafers.
The race was half over before a pattern began to develop. Donnie Allison had made up the lap he lost and was in second with Benny Parsons leading. Petty was fifth, his car one of those left unscathed.
But it was Yarborough who was on Parsons' tail on the track, although he was three laps behind in the standings. Yarborough had a plan: draft the leader (it is a proven and practiced law of racetrack physics that two stock cars nose to tail can travel not only faster than two side by side, but also faster than either car could go alone), pray for yellow flags, and when one comes, make up a lap. This can be done under NASCAR rules by slipping past the leader before he reaches the start-finish line.
On Lap 105 another yellow flag came out. Yarborough passed Parsons, sped around to the back of the field and made up a lap. He was now only two laps down. Parsons began slowing with an overheating engine, and Donnie Allison took the lead. After working through the field, Yarborough was glued to Allison's bumper. When another yellow came out on Lap 121, Cale shot by Donnie in Turn 3—where they were to meet again, of course. He was now only one lap down, and for the first time that afternoon his crew was smiling. His car was still somewhat out of kilter from its excursion into the mud, however. "It's drivable, but it's not right," said one mechanic. "But Cale's hanging on."
On Lap 139 Yarborough was on Allison's tail yet again, with Petty behind Cale, in second, still running steadily, waiting. When the yellow came out once more, Cale zoomed by Donnie again. After weaving through the entire field a third time, suddenly Yarborough was back on the same lap with the leaders. With 30 laps remaining, it was Allison leading, Yarborough on his tail and Petty, Waltrip and Foyt trailing and drafting each other. And Cale stayed inches from Donnie's bumper for 29½ laps, or until the excitement began.
Petty's win was his first Grand National victory in a year and a half, which made him feel a little better than he otherwise might have at backing into the win as he did. Anyway, he has been on the other side of the fence a time or two himself, most notably in 1976, when he and Pearson crashed into each other on the last turn of the 500 and Pearson managed to coax his smashed car across the finish line for the win.
Petty had other reasons to be happy. After having nearly half his ulcerous stomach cut out in December, his doctor advised him to quit racing. "I'm feeling good no matter what the doctor says," Richard protested. Contributing to his sense of well-being was the fact that a week earlier his 18-year-old son Kyle made his stock-car racing debut—and won, of course. "He's a tough act to follow," proud father Richard had said, before he did his son one better.
When Richard pulled into pit lane after taking the checkered flag, Kyle—who carries tires for his dad during his pit stops—was the first to congratulate him. Soon the entire crew was riding on Petty's car, blocking his view out the windshield. "Where's Victory Circle?" asked Richard. "I'll show you," said Kyle. "I know the way."