Dale Earnhardt had a crowd with him wherever he went in Las Vegas last Saturday night. When he got bored by the Casino de Paris floor show at the Dunes hotel and headed for the casino, those in his entourage who bet only on sure things stuck with him like pigeons to a popcorn man. That afternoon at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, they had seen Earnhardt win the NASCAR championship despite doing just about everything he could to hand it to Cale Yarborough—from clipping the pit wall to getting disoriented on the backstretch to trying to haul a hydraulic jack around the track with him. They knew a man who was blessed when they saw one, and they wanted to get their chips down where his were.
Going into the Los Angeles Times 500, the final race of the Grand National stock car season, Earnhardt led Yarborough by a mere 29 points out of some 4,000. Over the last half of the 31-race season, Yarborough had steadily narrowed a gap that had been as wide as 230 points and, having won the two races before Ontario, was on a roll. What's more, Yarborough had the best car; he had been the fastest qualifier 13 times during the year, a NASCAR record. Earnhardt, by contrast, had not won a single pole position. Often his problem was horsepower. At some races his Monte Carlo just didn't have enough, which inspired Earnhardt—in his second full season on NASCAR's premier circuit—to show folks just how hard he could drive. "I'll tell you what makes that car run," said David Ifft, crew chief for Benny Parsons, the driver who would win the Ontario race. "Dale Earnhardt makes that car run.
"He's been driving like a wild man to make up for a lack of horsepower all year. Been going into the corners deeper and just throwing it the rest of the way around. Thing is, he's good enough to get away with it."
Earnhardt himself is entirely nonchalant about his go-for-broke driving style. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" he says with a shrug. He smiles when he hears that Yarborough has complained about Earnhardt's racing too close to him. "Well, what's ol' Cale been sayin' about me today?" he asks, cheerfully lacking reverence for the 40-year-old three-time NASCAR champion.
For all his aggressiveness on the track, Earnhardt is easygoing off it. At Ontario he would cruise through the garage area in his rumbling blue-and-yellow race car, slouched down like an East L.A. low-rider driver cruising Sunset Boulevard. With the 1980 championship on the line, was he nervous about having to fight off a pack of hard-charging heroes like Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, et al.? "I can't wait till that race starts," he said.
Well, maybe he was bred for such battles. His father was Ralph Earnhardt, one of the best-known and hardest-driving stock-car racers of the '50s. The elder Earnhardt died of a heart attack at 44 in 1973, two years after his 20-year-old son began driving small tracks in the Carolinas. Ralph Earnhardt had given Dale this advice: always stay cool on the racetrack. "As a boy I remember standing on the tailgate of a pickup truck down in Columbia, watching my daddy race against David Pearson, Lee Petty, all of 'em. I come from where they been," Dale says.
Moments before he was to qualify at Ontario last Thursday, Earnhardt was cool enough to be dozing on the floor of his garage near the Monte Carlo as his crew bustled around him in last-minute preparation. When it was time to go to work, Earnhardt cracked open one eye, grinned a little and bounced up. Yarborough had already qualified at 155.499 mph and was fastest so far. Earnhardt knew what he had to do: get around Ontario's 2.5 miles faster than Yarborough, and with a car that was most likely slower. "Cale's car is strong," Earnhardt admitted as he threw one leg into the window of the Monte Carlo. He paused. "But damn! I want to run faster than that son of a gun," he said as he got his other leg in and lowered himself into the form-fitting seat.
His crew stood at the end of pit row nervously fingering stopwatches as Earnhardt began his qualifying lap. Their eyes got bigger and their jaws slacker as he drove at full speed deeper and deeper into Turn One, well past the point where most drivers ease off the throttle. The car went blaap as Earnhardt finally backed off, a full 50 yards farther into the turn than Yarborough. The rear end of the car twitched—"It was just trying to make up its mind which way it wanted to go," Earnhardt said later—and the exhaust bellowed as he floored it again leaving the turn. A whoop went up from the mechanics who had witnessed the charge, a cheer that clearly said there's nobody around driving stock cars like this man.
But Earnhardt's average was .644 mph slower than Yarborough's; he might even have gone too deep into the turn and thus been slower getting back up to top speed on the straight. Yarborough had won his 14th pole, his third in a row at Ontario. But Earnhardt, second fastest, would also be on the front row, door-to-door with his main rival. "Just where I want to be," he said with a smile.
It had taken more than Earnhardt's driving to get his team where it was. His crew's performance during the year was as impressive as his own—indeed, it was amazing. It is a relatively ragtag bunch, mostly young, mostly Californian, in a pursuit in which experience has seemed inseparable from success and in which speed secrets and family secrets have often been one and the same. The outfit had been deserted in midseason by its chief, Jake Elder, who felt the rest of the crew was not only too green but also too laid-back.
When Elder departed, young Doug Richert became crew chief. Richert had worked as a mechanic on the team throughout his professional life. That meant he had been at it for all of four years—ever since he was 16. Hardly anyone gave Earnhardt much chance at the championship after Elder left. Richert against Junior Johnson, the legendary crew chief for Yarborough? A mismatch made in heaven for Yarborough.
But a funny thing happened after Richert took over. A common spirit developed; the crew became even more relaxed, yet more determined. "We had something to prove," says Richert. "We were supposed to fall on our butts, go down the tubes. We didn't. There was a lot of adrenaline flowing. We knew we could do the job."
Richert and his men not only proved something, but they also cracked a myth: that stock-car racing's secrets are buried decades deep. Says Earnhardt, "There are no deep, dark secrets. That's part of the old philosophy my daddy taught me: you prepare that race car the best you can, and you work hard and run hard and keep your damn composure about you, and it'll all work out."
So there they were, Earnhardt and Yarborough, side-by-side on the front row. Yarborough, not one to feather-foot under any condition—and certainly not with another championship just 500 miles away—was confident that a fourth NASCAR title was his. Only Richard Petty, with seven, had ever won more. Petty would be starting three rows behind him. "Ah b'lieve ah'm going to win it," Yarborough would say.
Shortly before the start, Yarborough approached Earnhardt. It was the first time they had spoken all week. "Use your head," Yarborough said. "The both of us," Earnhardt replied. On the back-stretch, as the cars burbled along slowly on the pace lap, Earnhardt looked over and saw Yarborough looking back at him, giving him the thumbs-up sign, wishing him a good race.
For 365 of the 500 miles it was anything but a good race for Earnhardt. He began fading shortly after the start. There were 30- to 40-mph gusts blowing across the track, upsetting his car's handling, and he didn't have the horsepower to make up the difference. Yarborough stayed with the front pack, pulling five, 10, 20 seconds away from Earnhardt.
It got worse for Earnhardt before it got better. On Lap 69 a yellow caution flag came out, and Earnhardt and his crew miscalculated their position relative to the leader. He pitted for fuel too soon and lost a lap. In sixth position and needing fifth to assure himself of the championship, Earnhardt tried desperately to get back on the same lap with the leaders through the middle of the race. Twice he had excellent opportunities, but couldn't make it. Meanwhile, Yarborough kept circling the course near or in the lead. Earnhardt looked a loser.
Then, on Lap 145 the breaks started coming. Darrell Waltrip blew his engine, moving Earnhardt into fifth, his sanctuary. Six laps later there was another yellow flag after a spin, and when the green came back out, Earnhardt made a move that atoned for his earlier mistake and most likely saved the championship for him. As the field rounded Turn Four under the yellow, he broke out of the pack and, the moment the green flag fell, passed four cars and then blew past a surprised Yarborough, the leader, to unlap himself.
Then came another stroke of good luck for Earnhardt. The yellow flag came out again, which by NASCAR's rules allowed him to speed around to the back of the pack and make up the lap he had lost. When the cars resumed racing speed on Lap 156, Earnhardt again smoked past Yarborough and found himself in the lead for the first time. "I was ready, and they weren't," he said later.
Yarborough repassed Earnhardt, and a fine duel was under way. Earnhardt put his car inches from Yarborough's rear bumper as they flashed through lap after lap in a two-car convoy. He had Yarborough exactly where he wanted him, squarely in his sights and in a position in which the draft created by Yarborough's car would allow Earnhardt to stay with his rival despite the horsepower deficiency.
All he had to do to clinch the championship was hang in there. But then he momentarily forgot what his daddy had taught him. When he came in for his final scheduled pit stop, he lost his damn composure. There's no other way to put it. First he slid into his own pit wall, scattering his crew. Then, while they were trying to change the right rear tire, he tore out of the pit with the car still up on the jack. A NASCAR inspector tried to stop him, fearing that the wheel the crew had begun to change would work itself loose and come spinning off under the stress of a 170-mph sprint to the finish line. The stunned crew ran around in circles. The tire they never got the chance to change was down to the cord. A black flag came out for Earnhardt, forcing him to come into the pits once more to put on the three lug nuts that had been left behind when he rushed out of the pits.
The guys in the crew held their breath as they looked toward the scoreboard to see just how many positions the mental lapse had lost. There came a collective sigh of relief when they saw that Earnhardt was fifth. Now they knew their driver had the championship, if by the skin of his teeth—and that they would win the Sears Craftsman pit crew championship, a title earned by a crew's car spending the least amount of time in the pits in 10 selected races during the season. The Earnhardt gang beat its closest rivals—which happened to be Yarborough's crew, commanded by Johnson—by five points.
Meanwhile, Yarborough had been passed by Parsons, who sped away to win by 6.3 seconds. Because Parsons will be replaced on the M.C. Anderson Chevrolet team by Yarborough next season and was thus out of a job the moment he crossed the finish line, it was a particularly satisfying victory. Neil Bonnett passed Yarborough on the last lap, pushing him back to third place.
Yarborough, who has decided to enter fewer races from now on, knew that this had been his last real chance for a fourth championship. After the race he closed his garage door behind him, so he could be alone with his disappointment.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, had got the message. "Let's go to Vegas," he said following the race. The luck that had been with him in California was still there when he got to Nevada. After he won $290 at blackjack, Earnhardt went at the slots. A few cranks later, three oranges came flipping into the windows and 100 silver dollars came clattering into the tray. At that moment Earnhardt looked very damn composed.