A King And ‘Jaws’ Duel In The Sun
There is excitement aplenty, for sure, as Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart await their showdown Sunday for the coveted Cup Series championship in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards is the leader by three points going into the NASCAR season finale.
This type of drama is what officials of the sanctioning organization envisioned in 2004 when they inaugurated the playoff points system for a multi-million dollar title.
But the old points plan that dated to 1972 produced some thrillers as well - like in 1980 when Dale Earnhardt edged Cale Yarborough for the first of his seven championships; and '83, when Bobby Allison held off Darrell Waltrip's charge to win the crown after 23 years of trying and '92, when Alan Kulwicki's improbable rally gained him the title over Bill Elliott and Davey Allison.
However, the championship battle that remains most vivid to me occurred in 1979 and matched two of the sport's biggest stars, the popular veteran Richard Petty and brash, quip-loving newcomer Waltrip. Both were destined to become motorsports icons.
The points spread as they went into the season finale L.A. Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway in California was a scant two points, with Waltrip leading.
There's no way this could not be my favorite showdown.
After much deliberation and consideration of costs, editors at The Charlotte Observer, my newspaper alma mater, decided that I would be sent to California to cover the race.
I was ecstatic. I'd been west of the Mississippi River only once previously, and that was a brief ride over a bridge into Louisiana in 1958 while visiting Vicksburg, Miss.
Now I was going to be taking a jet plane to the Golden West. California, here I come!
Other members of The Observer's newsroom staff reacted in disbelief. I recall the late Kays Gary, one of the greatest local columnists ever on any newspaper anywhere, marveling at my assignment. "I remember a time," said Kays, "when we had to fight to get permission to go on expense account across the Catawba River."
The Catawba is about seven miles west of Charlotte.
Not only was I going to see the Rocky Mountains, Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, but the lead-up to the race and the event itself promised to produce dramatic stories that would be widely-read back home in the Carolinas, long the hotbed of stock car racing.
It hardly could have been more exciting.
The two days prior to the race at the 2.5-mile track near San Bernardino were equal to the hype.
Speedway officials had Petty and Waltrip dress in Old West gunslinger garb and stage an imaginary duel for photographers in the infield. Waltrip, ever the comic, keeled over near the end of the session as if he had been fatally plugged. (Was it an omen of things to come?)
In time trials, Petty qualified fifth at 153.580 mph on the racing layout designed as an exact replica of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Waltrip was clocked at 151.247, tenth fastest. Yarborough won the pole at 154.902.
Waltrip said a day later he wasn't concerned about the discrepancy in speed.
"We changed engines this morning (on Saturday)," Waltrip said of his Charlotte-based DiGard team, led by crew chief Buddy Parrott. "We've caught up. I went out in practice and hooked up with Buddy Baker. We were turning laps at 153.6 miles an hour. We're OK."
Petty was timed in the same range during his practice runs.
Still, something was nagging at the DiGard outfit. The team couldn't decide what gear ratio to run. Waltrip, Parrott and team owner Bill Gardner huddled long and seriously.
Meanwhile, Petty and his crew based at little Level Cross, N.C., were loose. Perhaps it was because King Richard already had won a record six championships.
"Just like the point thing, the race is going to be close," said Petty. "I'm still saying the same thing I have all along...Whichever of us gets the best breaks - or maybe even one break - will win the championship. It comes down to that."
Said Parrott: "I don't foresee us having any problems, and I hope the Petty people don't either. Something as classic as this deserves to be decided on the track. I know Richard's folks would be a lot prouder if it falls that way, too."
Estimates on the title's worth back then ranged from $150,000 to $400,000, which seems a pittance to this era's multi-million dollar prizes.
"I'd say $400,000 is closer," said Yarborough, winner of a record three straight titles from 1976-78. "It would probably be worth more to Darrell than Petty, because Darrell is a new face. And let's face it, Jaws is a pretty saleable individual when it comes to endorsements."
"Jaws" is the nickname Yarborough earlier had tagged on Waltrip because of his talkative nature.
Race day, Nov. 18, 1979, arrived bright and sunny. Towering, snow-capped Old Baldy, part of the San Gabriel Mountains chain, loomed behind the backstretch of the speedway that was surrounded by the vineyards of wineries.
A crowd estimated at near 60,000 gathered at the track that was beautiful beyond its time.
Ponds, surrounded by palm trees, looked like an oasis in the expansive infield. Migrating waterfowl swam and fed at the ponds.
Finally, it was race time. And rather quickly, Petty's prognostication came true.
A break decided the championship. It was a woefully bad break for Waltrip.
On the 38th of the 200 laps driver John Rezek looped his car entering turn three, sending up a plume of smoke. Waltrip wasn't far behind him.
"I couldn't see where he was on the track," said Waltrip. "Rather than racing in there and maybe ramming him, I spun my car, too. I kept the engine going and immediately got back off the grass, went around the track once and then pitted.
“When I came out the pace car picked me up and I thought I was the leader, 'cause most everyone among the other frontrunners had pitted twice. But a little bit later Buddy Parrott radioed and said NASCAR scoring was showing me a lap down."
"When I heard that, it was like someone had kicked a ladder out from under me. I knew right then that if Richard didn't have any trouble it would take a miracle for us. The miracle never came. The ball bounced right for him and it didn't for us. It's that simple.
"Let's face it, Richard came to run and we didn't. I tried to tell our people all along that he would, but they wouldn't listen. That's pretty much the first time we've done that all year (opted to run conservatively). Who made the decision, well, just say it was unanimous."
"We guessed on the wrong combination and we got our fannies beat," conceded Parrott.
Petty finished fifth behind winner Benny Parsons, Allison, Yarborough and Baker, who staged a stunning battle over the final laps. Waltrip wound up 10th, a lap behind.
Petty won the championship for the seventh and final time by a meager 11 points, the tightest title chase in NASCAR history at that point.
To Petty's credit, he didn't back off cautiously and conservatively to cruise control after Waltrip's trouble.
Said Petty: "Last year (1978) we continued struggling through a 45-race winless streak. It was the low ebb in my 20 years in racing, so from that standpoint winning the title again is very satisfying.
"As everyone knows, I'm a pretty unemotional person. Really, to me, seven titles is just one more number than six. Now, if we'd won the race, I'd be sky-high. I wanted to take the championship by winning the race in the greatest sort of way. That's how it should be done."
Both Petty and Waltrip continued on to more glory.
Petty won his record-by-far 200th and final race in 1984. Waltrip won three championships- in 1981, '82 and '85 - after joining the team owned by legendary Junior Johnson.
Ontario Motor Speedway no longer exists, falling victim years ago to financing arrangements that probably doomed it from the start.
Both Petty and Waltrip continue in stock car racing, Petty as a team owner and Waltrip as a network television commentator. Petty was inducted as a member of the inaugural class into NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame in Charlotte in 2009. Waltrip is awaiting induction in the third class.
As yet another NASCAR season ends, I imagine that, like me and a lot of other old-timers, Richard and Darrell will have flashbacks to their duel in the California sun - never mind that it proved to be rather anti-climactic.