Editor’s Note: The following is part six of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss the first five editions? Don’t worry… we have the links for you here. Enjoy!
Richard Petty and David Pearson arrived at Daytona Beach in February of 1976 with some unsettled business. It was the year of this country’s Bicentennial and the fireworks started at Daytona that afternoon, late in the race.
John Banks was hospitalized after a wreck in the first qualifying race that saw his Dodge flip 16 times. Dave Marcis drove the powerful K and K Dodge to a victory in that event, edging out Buddy Baker, who was out to try to break his bad luck streak at Daytona in Bud Moore’s Ford. Dave Decker also wound up in the hospital in fair condition after slugging the wall in the second qualifier. Darrell Waltrip turned misfortune into an advantage when he fueled up while having a cut tire replaced on lap 4. Through timely caution flags, he was able to get back towards the front and took the lead when the other drivers all had to pit late in the going. Petty came home second.
Baker came from fifth to first on lap 1, once again leading the Daytona 500, but once again mechanical gremlins bit him. His engine expired on the 83rd lap, relegating Baker to a 33rd-place finish. Cale Yarborough experienced even worse luck, popping an engine in his Junior Johnson Chevy on the very first lap and finishing dead last. Bobby Allison, AJ Foyt and Waltrip also joined the “shovel the engine into a sack and let’s get on home early” brigade. With the other front runners felled, Petty and Pearson were on a lap by themselves, with Benny Parsons running third probably wishing Richard would wait up again. Once again, the television crews joined the race in the middle stages, and Petty and Pearson treated the viewers and at home to an epic battle, swapping the lead back and forth between them.
With 13 laps left Petty powered into the lead. Going down the backstretch for the final time, Pearson employed the slingshot move to retake the lead. Pearson had to drive so hard into turn 3 after making that pass his Mercury slipped high in the corner and Petty tried diving low to retake the lead. Coming out of the fourth and final turn that same lap, Petty’s car skated sideways and the two cars touched. In an instant both were spinning towards the finish line. Pearson slugged the outside wall and ricocheted back towards the entrance of pit road where he slammed into Joe Frasson‘s Chevy. Petty fought desperately for control seeing the finish line just ahead, but finally nailed the outside wall as well and spun into the infield grass in the tri-oval only 100 feet short of the finish line. Both cars laid stationary as Parsons swept by, trying to complete another lap and take the win.
Pearson had managed to keep his Mercury running and began inching towards the finish line ever so slowly. The King’s car wouldn’t refire and he sat there helplessly watching as Pearson limped towards the checkered. Finally it was too much for the STP crew to bear, and they hurdled the pit wall and began pushing Petty’s car towards the finish line. Pearson crossed the line first anyway, and it was a moot point because NASCAR rules do not allow a car to be pushed on the final lap. Petty was credited with second place while Benny came home third. Pearson wheeled his badly bashed up Mercury into victory lane, the fourth Wood Brothers driver to make the trip. After the event Petty delivered one of the all-time great lines in NASCAR history. Asked what he was thinking when the car started spinning, Petty’s reply was, “Well I wasn’t exactly hollering ‘Hoo-ray for me!'”
It appeared Petty would have his revenge in the Daytona 500 of 1977. Certainly he looked strong in the first qualifying race, humbling the field after taking the lead from that Pearson fellow on the eighth lap and stretching it out to a nearly 30-second victory in the race. Pearson took second with Bobby Allison in a Matador and Dave Marcis in Roger Penske’s Mercury rounding out the top four. After the race, Pearson all but conceded the Daytona 500 to the King, saying nobody had anything that could even keep up with him. Parsons took the lead in the second qualifier, but Yarborough in Junior’s Chevy blew past him with 16 laps to go and was pulling away when the yellow flag flew, causing the last three laps of the race to be run under caution. In a set of victory lane remarks Bill France didn’t much appreciate, Yarborough blasted NASCAR for the chintzy prize money in the 125s (the winner got $4,600 that year) and not awarding points for the race. Parsons hung on for second, edging out Baker, who was ready to have another go at an elusive Daytona 500 victory aboard a Bud Moore Ford. Waltrip, a favorite in his own mind, came home fourth. Rookie Bill Elliott survived the race, but his 18th-place finish was not good enough to advance him to the big show on Sunday.
Sunday dawned a blustery day, and 30-mph wind gusts plagued the 1977 Daytona 500. The wind-blown sand pitted windshields and the hot dog wrappers and other trash clogged grilles, leading cars to overheat and lose engines. Bobby Wawak had a gas line split in his Chevy on lap 3, turning the car into a fireball. Wawak dove out the window with the car still doing around 40 mph, and rather than wait for an ambulance ran all the way to the infield care center with serious burns. A gust of wind caused polesitter Donnie Allison to wreck before the halfway point of the event. Once again, engine failures plagued many top contenders, most notably Petty. Also eliminated by mechanical failures were Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett and Pearson. Baker didn’t lose an engine that year, but spun trying to avoid Salt Walther on the 114th lap, taking himself out of contention. It came down to Yarborough battling Parsons, but it turned out Cale had the stronger horse that day. Cale won the race, and once again Junior Johnson got to visit the familiar turf of Daytona 500 victory lane. Parsons held onto second ahead of Baker and Coo Coo Marlin. Waltrip wound up seventh. Rookie Ricky Rudd managed a 22nd-place finish. With bonus money Cale earned a record $63,700, the first Daytona winner to earn more than $50,000. Yarborough was only the second man to win more than one Daytona 500.
The 1978 Daytona 500 didn’t produce a great finish, but it did have a sentimental favorite make his first trip to victory lane. The 125-mile qualifiers were run on a foggy afternoon. In the first 125, Bobby Allison and the perennially jinxed Baker wrecked while fighting for the win. Buddy had left the Bud Moore Ford team to drive an MC Anderson Oldsmobile, and ironically enough Allison had taken his old seat in Bud Moore’s Ford. Foyt made a power move on Pearson on lap 19 and drove a self-owned Buick to the victory. Pearson wound up second, Donnie Allison third and Yarborough fourth. The real surprise of the event was Elliott, who stayed in the hunt with the leaders throughout the event and opened a few eyes finishing fifth in a Mercury owned by his dad.
Petty was in the second qualifier and Petty Enterprises was having a time of it that Speedweeks. The King’s trusty Dodge Chargers had finally had to be retired due to the age, and the Mopar replacement was a deformed beast called the Dodge Magnum with every disco-era styling cue present and accounted for. Still, Petty managed to make a horse race of it, battling tooth and nail with Waltrip swapping the lead for most of the event. Waltrip prevailed in the end. It was one of the few bright spots in the abortive racing career of the Dodge Magnum. Parsons came home third. Newcomer Harry Gant finished a respectable 10th. Rudd had a rough day, wrecking his last racecar and hanging up his crash helmet as a result, temporarily as it turned out.
The 1978 Daytona 500 appeared like it was finally going to be Baker’s day in the sun. He had the dominant car and held off pesky but determined charges from Bobby Allison and Yarborough. Petty was eliminated in a wreck and took Pearson and Waltrip with him. Parsons also fell victim to a blown tire. Foyt got on the binders trying to miss Parsons, but was nailed from behind. Foyt’s car got sideways and rolled violently. He was removed from the wreck unconscious and taken to the hospital for observation (and no doubt to teach the doctors and nurses new profanities). Yarborough dropped a cylinder, eliminating him from contention for the win, though he remained out there running.
Baker’s once dominant Olds also began to slow and Allison was able to pass him. Moments later, Baker’s engine once again exploded, and he had to push in the clutch and glide around the track helplessly watching as car after car passed him. Baker slid back to seventh place, while Allison took the win by a comfortable margin over Yarborough in his ailing Olds. Bobby Allison, a once dominant driver who had not won in two previous seasons and perpetual fan favorite, celebrated his first Daytona 500 victory. Once again Baker was left in the garage area, face buried in his hands wondering what he had to do to win a Daytona 500. Parsons recovered from his blown tire to come home third. The impressive Georgian rookie Elliott bought his Ford home eighth.
1979 marked a special occasion in the history of the Daytona 500. For the first time ever the race was being broadcast live, flag-to-flag. CBS was to conduct the experiment which many industry analysts thought was rather risky. The conventional wisdom of the day said stock car racing was a regional sport, and even loyal Southerners would not endure the tedium of a four-hour race. Of course those same folks endured the tedium of extra-inning scoreless baseball games that seemed to go on forever, but media-savvy pundits had their doubts. CBS was clearly nervous and hoping something exciting happened. They got that and more.
Baker had switched teams yet again and saddled up a Harry Ranier Oldsmobile for the first qualifier. Yarborough was the only car that could run with Baker, and in the end Baker was pulling away from Cale. Parsons was third in another Oldsmobile, Bobby Allison fourth in a Ford and Pearson brought the Wood Brothers’ Mercury home in fifth. In seventh place was Petty, who had finally abandoned the doomed Dodge Magnum halfway through the previous season and was making his first Daytona start in a GM product, yet another Olds. The second qualifier was a hard-fought affair, with Waltrip, Foyt, Dick Brooks and newcomer Dale Earnhardt in a Roy Osterlund Olds battling for the win. Waltrip was leading with Foyt second when Dale tried to pass them both on the last lap, got out of the draft and fell back to fourth behind Brooks.
The network folks must have been sweating bullets when it rained at Daytona the morning of the 500. Fortunately the rain stopped and the start of the race was only delayed 10 minutes. To accommodate the TV crews who needed to show something happening, NASCAR had the first 15 laps run under yellow to have the racecars help dry the track. Early in the going, Donnie Allison and Yarborough made contact and both slid off the track, taking Donnie’s brother Bobby with them. The infield was still a muddy mess and both Allisons lost a lap, while Cale lost three laps when he got stuck in the mud. Miraculously, all three drivers were able to make up the distance and contend again for the lead thanks to some well timed yellows. Baker started from the pole, but at least that year his misery was short-lived. The car never came up to speed and finally lost an engine on the 38th lap, leaving him 40th in the field. For a change he was the only front runner to lose an engine. Earnhardt raised a few eyebrows, leading briefly five times. Petty, Donnie Allison, Foyt, Yarborough and Waltrip emerged as the front runners. Of that group, Donnie and Cale began separating themselves from the others.
Allison took the lead on lap 178 and Cale seemed content to draft him a while to help the pair make a breakaway from the others, all the while setting Donnie up for a last-lap slingshot move. But Donnie Allison had seen that trick done before. Cale used the draft to get a nice slingshot down the backstraight. Donnie moved low to block him. So Cale dove a little lower not wanting to lose any momentum. So Donnie dove a bit lower to block him. And so on, until Cale was on the grass at 190 mph-plus. Even at that, the stubborn South Carolinian refused to lift. He came back onto the track and hit Allison hard enough the rear wheels of Yarborough’s car left the ground. Donnie tried to cut back to keep out of the wall and the two cars hit again. Still locked together, the two Oldsmobiles went up, hit the wall and spun back down into the infield.
That left Waltrip, Petty and Foyt suddenly battling for the lead while their spotters hollered at them to go. Foyt lifted a bit seeing the wreck, leaving Petty and Waltrip to fight it out for top honors. Petty won by about a car length to claim his sixth Daytona 500. As if that was exciting enough, there was still more action. Donnie and Cale got out of their cars in less than pleasant moods with less than cordial attitudes towards one another. Bobby Allison pulled up to check on his brother Donnie, to see if he was all right. Cale said something to Bobby who said something back, and Cale responded with a fist. Moments later the three of them were rolling on the ground throwing punches while the stunned audience at home, many of them seeing their first race, watched courtesy of CBS.
Tragedy once again struck the 1980 Daytona Speedweek. In the second qualifying race, Ricky Knotts was killed in a freak accident. The hood of his Oldsmobile flew off, and the car veered crazily, slamming first the outside and then the inside wall hard. It was the first big-track start for the Michigan native. Donnie Allison won the tragic race rather easily over Petty. The first qualifier also saw a big wreck, though fortunately there were no serious injuries. Nine cars, most of them rookies including Richard’s boy Kyle Petty, got swept up in a lap 25 wreck. Yarborough and Baker were battling for the win, when Bonnett came charging out of nowhere and made quick work of them. Cale finished second and Buddy third.
Baker was once again the class of the Daytona 500 field, taking an early lead with only Earnhardt, the 1979 rookie of the year, able to hang with him. Petty and Waltrip both lost engines. Foyt just parked his car, hollering it was too slow and evil-handling to continue. Earnhardt seemed to be getting stronger, but his pit crew failed to install a rear lugnut, and Earnhardt was black-flagged back to the pits and lost a lap late in the going. Baker was out there running with a comfortable lead, and no doubt gritting his teeth waiting for the engine to blow on him again, but that day fortune smiled down on Buddy as warm as the Florida sun. The race finished under caution and Baker cruised to a win, having set a blistering 177.602 mph-average speed record in the relatively caution-free event. Bobby Allison finished second and Bonnett third despite having lost an engine on the last lap and having to coast it around to the finish. Earnhardt wound up fourth. Earnhardt had a teammate for the 1980 Daytona 500 as well, Janet Guthrie, who finished 11th.
The prize money to the race winner exceeded $100,000 for the first time, but more importantly for Baker it was an end to all those years of frustration stretching back to his first Daytona 500 in 1961 when he wound up 40th, 45 laps off the pace despite having run the entire race. The Baker curse at Daytona was finally over.