Thursday, March 9, 2017

March 9, 1980 - Rockingham's Carolina 500

The 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup season was one for the ages. Richard Petty won his sixth Daytona 500 to end a losing streak that spanned a season and a half. The King then battled Darrell Waltrip for the top points position in the second half of the season, and he ultimately prevailed to claim his seventh title.

Waltrip and his Gatorade DiGard team did not hang their heads after losing the title to Petty. The 88 bunch came out of the chute hot in 1980 by winning the season-opening race in Riverside, CA and the third race of the year at Richmond - both from the pole. Buddy Baker's 1980 season also started off in grand fashion. After years of fast cars and frustrating luck, he finally won his prized race - the Daytona 500. As Waltrip had done, Baker won the 500 from the top starting spot.

With races on a road course, superspeedway, and half-mile short track in the books, the grind of the season moved to Rockingham for the annual Carolina 500.

As often seems to happens with NASCAR, the larger story of  the race weekend happened off the track. When the teams rolled in to the North Carolina sandhills, many eyes turned to an unexpected team.

L.G. DeWitt was a long-time car owner. He fielded Chevrolets for Benny Parsons for most of the 1970s - including for Parson's Cup title in 1973 and Daytona 500 win in 1975. Second year driver and 1979 rookie-of-the-year runner-up, Joe Millikan returned as his driver in 1980. DeWitt also owned the tracks in Atlanta and Rockingham.

The garage buzzed when word got out that the FBI was investigating members of DeWitt's #72 race team for dealing in stolen cars. The seriousness of the allegations was magnified by the embarrassment of having the news released when DeWitt was hosting a race at his own track.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Though I'm uncertain how the allegations eventually played out, DeWitt's team was all but done. Millikan had a miserable finish at Daytona, flipped his car over the guard rail at Richmond, and lost an engine for a third consecutive poor finish at Rockingham. A few races later, the team folded leaving Millikan without a ride.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Teams and fans also faced the news former driver Lee Roy Yarbrough had been committed to a mental institution. Yarbrough was a genuinely successful driver in the mid to late 1960s. A series of bad accidents in NASCAR and Indy cars shortened his career. Yarbrough likely suffered a series of serious concussions - and CTE likely followed. Around the time of the Daytona 500, Yarbrough tried to kill his mother and was declared incompetent by a court.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
In qualifying, Darrell Waltrip had a ton of Robert Yates horsepower yet again. He won the pole - his third top spot in the first four races of the season. Despite the noise of the FBI investigation hanging in the air, Millikan put DeWitt's car on the outside of the front row.

Cale Yarborough puked a motor and wrecked his Junior Johnson-owned, Busch Beer-sponsored Chevy Monte Carlo during final practice before qualifying. Johnson rallied his guys to head back to the shop and return with the Olds 442 Cale had raced in the Daytona 500. Yarborough was unable to lay down a lap on the first of two days of qualifying. In the second round, however, he was the quickest car despite his concerns the Olds wouldn't hustle around The Rock as well as the Monte Carlo.

third storyline involved the race itself. As noted on the program, the race was originally scheduled for March 2. After qualifying was completed, however, a winter weather system arrived. Snow and ice scuttled the plans of all to race for a week.

The race was delayed by a week though the line-up from qualifying was retained.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald-Journal
When the green flag fell, Waltrip set sail. He led 77 of the race's first 78 laps. After winning Daytona, Buddy Baker's Ranier Racing team skipped Richmond. Baker laid down a solid qualifying lap, started third, and led a chunk of 100+ laps after taking over the top spot from Waltrip. After giving up the lead to others, however, his day ended prematurely - as it often did in his career - when he skidded through a patch of oil and popped the wall.

Source: Decatur Daily Review
Yarborough didn't count himself among the favorites to win the race. His finishes in the first three races of 1980 were lousy - and he had wrecked his preferred Monte Carlo at Rockingham - and he had to start deep in the field - and he was nursing a leg injury after having been kicked by a calf before the Richmond race. Yet after Waltrip and Baker had their initial turns up front, Cale led significant chunks of laps during various points of the race.

The King was pretty sporty at one of his favorite tracks. Petty followed up his 1979 championship season with P3s at Riverside and Richmond. He had a lightning quick Olds at Daytona; however, a burned clutch ended his day with a DNF and rotten finish. With a little over 100 laps to go at Rockingham, Petty had worked himself up to the point as he pursued yet another Rockingham trophy.

Cale's #11 Olds, however, had a nose for the front. Despite his moaning about how the 442 would likely pale in comparison to his preferred Monte, Junior Johnson likely spent the second half of the race with a wry smirk on his face as he leaned on a jack.

Petty hounded Yarborough for much of the final 100 laps. He hit a slick spot of oil as Baker did, wiggled, recovered and continued. He didn't stick his 43 Chevy in the fence, but he did lose his momentum in birddogging Cale.

Source: Rockingham Speedway by Rick Houston and Bryan Hallman
Yarborough kept his foot to the floor and built a sizable enough lead that he was able to make his final pit stop without losing the lead. He cruised to a relatively comfortable win over second place Petty.

Speaking of Petty, the race was also the first Rockingham start for Kyle Petty. Kyle made his first five Cup starts in 1979 and had a disappointing 1980 Speedweeks. His Dodge Magnum was wiped out in a qualifying race wreck, and he DNQ'd for the Daytona 500. He qualified deep in the field at Rockingham, lost an engine, and returned to Level Cross with a poor finish. About a decade later, however, he and crew chief Gary Nelson (who coincidentally worked with Waltrip at DiGard) dominated the field for a win at The Rock.

Source: Greenville News
The race was the 29th of 31 times Petty and Yarborough finished in the top two spots.

Source: NCMarrk on Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff as usual dude. Hate the result, love the story.