Saturday, April 16, 2016

April 16, 1978 - Gwyn Staley 400

NASCAR's Winston Cup drivers arrived in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the eighth race of the 1978 season - the Gwyn Staley 400.

A number of story lines existed as the teams prepared to race for 400 laps on the 5/8 mile track.
  • Two-time defending Cup champion, Cale Yarborough, let it be known he was back for a crack at a third consecutive title. He won the season-opener in Riverside, California and banked five Top 5 finishes in the season's first seven races.
  • Bobby Allison won two of the season's first seven races - including the Daytona 500 - in his new gig as the driver of Bud Moore's #15 Ford.
  • Dodge finally retired its venerable 1974 Charger body style. The King, Richard Petty, was now at the wheel of a Dodge Magnum. Rather than compete for wins as he'd done for several years with the Charger, Petty had opened the season with only a couple of top 5s along with some really dismal finishes.
  • Benny Parsons, the 1973 Cup champion and 1975 Daytona 500 winner, won two early season races at Richmond and Darlington.
A unique qualifying format was used for the race. The line-up was set by the average of two qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday. Parsons - who was from North Wilkesboro - had the quickest average over the two sessions. Darrell Waltrip timed second to join BP on the front row. Allison and Yarborough were side by side on the second row. Lennie Pond rounded out the top 5 starters in his #54 Harry Ranier Monte Carlo.

Twenty-nine drivers took the green flag. Not 43 - not 40 - not even 36. Just 29. Everyone was OK, and no one panicked about the state of the sport. Of course, Twitter, Facebook and FOX Sports RaceHub didn't exist back then either.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Despite the strong start to 1978, Cale had a rough go of it at his car owner's home track. Junior Johnson took great pride in having his drivers compete for wins at Wilkesboro. He could not have been happy with engine issues in Cale's #11 Olds - especially with a DNF for the second race in a row.

Courtesy of David Staten
As with Richard Petty, Neil Bonnett's Harry Hyde-led Dodge team had changed to the Magnum. Following Yarborough's early exit, he returned to the pit area in street clothes to watch more of the race (in dark shirt and cowboy hat in following pic). Cale may have toted a black cloud around his head that day because Bonnett soon fell out of the race with engine issues of his own.

Courtesy of David Staten
Though Petty's Magnum piled up several bad finishes and DNFs, the 43 was surprisingly strong at Wilkesboro. The fact the driver's performance was strong, however, was no surprise. With 15 wins at the track, King Richard knew how to hustle a car around it.

Petty, Parsons and Darrell Waltrip split time at the front of the field almost evenly. The bulk of Waltrip's lead laps, however, came in the final hundred laps of the race. He passed Petty and pulled the field around for almost 70 consecutive laps.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Waltrip gained a one-lap lead with about 70 laps to go when Petty made a pit stop. The King and his crew battled, however, to back get on the lead lap. He made up much of the ground, but a last lap caution caused by D.K. Ulrich allowed Waltrip to cruise to the the checkers and the win. Pole-winning Parsons hung tough, but he could only muster a third place finish - one lap down to Waltrip and Petty.

Credit: David Allio of Racing Photo Archives
The victory was Waltrip's second consecutive win at Wilkesboro and second of the season (first one coming at Bristol). When his career was done, he had piled up twenty-two wins just at those two tracks. Waltrip was met in victory lane by crew chief Buddy Parrott. Coincidentally, Parrott went to victory lane six years later with Petty at Daytona following his 200th career win.

Credit: SaveTheSpeedway (Twitter)
Petty's P2 matched the best finish of 1978 for the ill-fated, much maligned Magnum. He got another second place a couple of months later in the second road course race of the season at Riverside. By the summer, however, he'd had enough. The Dodge was dumped in favor of Chevrolet.


No comments:

Post a Comment