Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November 26, 1978 - The desert ends the drought

Richard Petty won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on July 4, 1977. The win was his 5th victory of the season, it was his 185th overall, and he was challenging Cale Yarborough in pursuit of his 7th NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National title.

Instead of the Big Mo' continuing, it just stopped. The 43 accumulated up a few more top 5s, poles were won at Wilkesboro and Ontario, and Petty finished second in points to Cale - though the chasm between first and second was huge. But after Daytona, Petty couldn't find victory lane the remainder of the season in his venerable 1974 Dodge Charger.

When the 1978 season began, Petty Enterprises had to mothball the beautiful Charger and trot out the sled-like Dodge Magnum.

Compared to Petty's historical norms, the car was underwhelming to put it mildly. Petty's losing streak grew - finally hitting one year at the 1978 Firecracker. A few weeks later, the announcement was made that Mopar was out and Chevy was in. Playing from behind, Petty Enterprises acquired a couple of Monte Carlos and then began building their own.

Yet the losing streak continued. In the next-to-last race of the season, the crowd went crazy when Ol' Blue took the checkered flag. Petty nipped Dave Marcis at the line to take the win ... or so it seemed. Donnie Allison, however, was ruled ahead of both cars and awarded the win.

Petty extended his losing streak with a dismal 34th place finish in the season-ending race at Ontario the following week. The King's winless 1978 season was his first ... since 1959! But the King had another racing obligation before calling it a year. On the way back from Ontario, Petty and a few other Cup regulars elected to participate in the Arizona NAPA 250 Winston West event at Phoenix International Raceway as some had done the year before.

Though he lost an engine and finished 34th at Ontario, the Petty crew installed a fresh one for Phoenix. In his first time on the track, Petty won the pole. Fellow Cup ringers Neil Bonnett and Bobby Allison started second and third. Winston West regular Bill Schmitt timed 4th in his Old Milwaukee Oldsmobile.

When the green flag flew, Petty began his domination of the race. He led the first 36 laps, the final 25 circuits, and 48 others in the middle for a total of 109 of the race's 156-laps, 250 kilometers distance.

The big guns are shown here working traffic as they come out of what I think is turn 4 - at the base of what is known as Rattlesnake Hill. Petty is followed by Bonnett in the Armor All Monte Carlo. Allison is behind Bonnett in his #1 AMC Matador racing alongside Winston West regular Ray Elder in one of the albatross Dodge Magnums.

Though the victory was scored as a Winston West (now K&N Pro Series West) series race and not included as part of Petty's record 200 Cup / GN wins, at least the year-and-a-half long losing streak was over. A win - any win - helps raise the spirits and morale of a team.

The win had the likely extra bonus of putting the King in a better mood health-wise. Having suffered from stomach ulcers for some time, Petty could stand them no longer. About two weeks after his Phoenix victory, he had the needed surgery.

Source: Florence Times Daily via Google News Archive
He was able to recuperate well enough to answer the bell when the 1979 season opened at Riverside. A few weeks later with additional healing, Petty's CUP losing streak ended when he captured his sixth Daytona 500 in the legendary race in which Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked on the final lap.


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