Friday, April 8, 2016

April 8, 1979 - A legendary Darlington battle

The eighth race of the 1979 Winston Cup season was the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 at Darlington. The storylines of the season to that point? Well, they were real and they were spectacular:
  • The Daytona 500 with The Fight between the Allisons and Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty's surprising win
  • Cale v. Donnie Allison round 2 the following week in Rockingham's Carolina 500
  • Rookie Dale Earnhardt's win in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol
  • The power of Buddy Baker's #28 Harry Ranier-owned Olds. Baker dominated Speedweeks (except for the 500) and won the Atlanta 500 three weeks before Darlington.
With so much going on in first few weeks of the season, it was doubtful Darlington could match or top what had happened thus far. Right? Wrong.

For the first time in the track's history, one of its races featured  a title sponsor. In January 1979, CRC Chemicals announced it would sponsor the race and be added to the existing, traditional Rebel 500 name. The announcement coincided with CRC's announcement of a sponsorship deal with independent racer Richard Childress.

Like many others, Childress raced an Olds 442 in the Daytona 500. For most other tracks, however, he raced the reliable Monte Carlo.

Courtesy of Statsman from Randy Ayers NASCAR Modeling Forum
The front row was comprised of pole winner Donnie Allison, whose Hoss Ellington cars continued to run well, and Darrell Waltrip.

Courtesy of Statsman
Two legends - Richard Petty and David Pearson - lined up behind one another on the starting grid in 6th and 8th spots. Their racing fortunes took two dramatically different turns at Darlington - that day and long-term.

Credit: blue65pv544 on Flickr
The King was relaxed before the race, and he tousled the hair of son Kyle who was a full-time crewman for his dad's 43. Or perhaps Richard was checking Kyle for ticks - I'm not really sure.

Courtesy of Statsman
Teams in today's racing seemingly have dozens of cars - a primary and at least one backup for each type of track. Until the 1990s, teams often had only a handful of multi-purpose cars. In the case of Petty Enterprises, the Monte Carlo raced at Darlington was also the car raced at Riverside's road course in January. The right side fuel filler used at Riverside was covered with unpainted sheet metal at Darlington.

Courtesy of Statsman
As had been the case since 1972, Pearson climbed through the window and belted into the seat of the famed Wood Brothers, Purolator Oil Filters #21 Mercury.

Courtesy of Statsman
When the green flag dropped, Waltrip stepped up as the lap bully. Though other drivers managed to lead here and there, DW's #88 Monte Carlo reclaimed the top spot in short order. The race had only a few brief cautions plus an interruption for light rain.

Pearson's 1979 season had gotten off to a shaky start - especially considering how well the 21 team had run the previous few seasons. But he was at Darlington - where he raced the place perhaps like no other. And he managed to get by Waltrip a couple of times to lead a couple of laps. But then...

With less than 100 laps to go, Pearson hit pit road for a green flag stop. The Wood Brothers crew combined with Pearson as the driver then made a remarkable mistake - one that still leaves old school race fans slackjawed. Pearson understood the team planned a two-tire stop. When the jack dropped on the right side, Pearson took off - business as usual. The crew, however, had removed the lugnuts on the lefts in anticipation of a four-tire stop. Pearson made it only about a hundred yards down pit road before the left side tires took off like wayward children at a theme park.

The Pearson-Woods pairing had been exceptional from 1972 through 1978. As a surprise to many, the relationship had begun to fray. After the disastrous miscue at Darlington, Pearson and the Woods parted ways.

In the  middle third of the race, Petty's 43 pulled the field around the track for 55 laps. He fully intended to win once more at Darlington - at track on which he'd only won three times with the last coming twelve years earlier.

Pole-winner Allison stuck his nose to between the two to lead a lap here and there, but the final stretch was between the legend Petty and the relative newcomer and one-time Darlington winner Waltrip.

A late race caution bunched the field a final time. The field took the green again with six laps to go and light rain beginning to fall. No one knew exactly if the race would run all the way to its scheduled 367 laps - or it might be call a lap or two early because of the rain. Because of the uncertainty and urgency, Petty and Waltrip began pulling moves thought impossible at Darlington. The two swapped the lead with crossover moves of fantastic precision - often more than once during a lap.

On the final lap, however, Petty made a slight mistake. As he pulled up in front of Waltrip as they barreled through turns 3 and 4, he bobbled and washed up a bit too far. Waltrip hooked left and stabbed his 88 under the 43 and pulled away. The King then had to fight Donnie Allison to the finish for second.

At the line, Waltrip had his second Darlington win in three years. Petty was close yet again but couldn't claim another victory at the Track Too Tough To Tame.

Waltrip's trophy is on display at his Franklin, TN car dealership, and the framed checkered flag hangs there as well.

Source: Gadsden Times via Google News Archive

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