Friday, March 5, 2021

March 5, 1978 - The Rock's Carolina 500

The 1978 Winston Cup season opened in January in southern California rather than in February at Daytona as has been the case since the late 1980s. Cale Yarborough won the season opener at Riverside's road course. Bobby Allison won the Daytona 500 after a mid-race wreck wiped out the fast trio of Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Darrell Waltrip. And Benny Parsons picked up a popular win in the season's third race at Richmond.

As the calendar turned to March, the Cup Series rolled into North Carolina Motor Speedway - Rockingham - The Rock - for the Carolina 500.

On the first day of qualifying and a cold one at that, Neil Bonnett picked up the pole in his Harry Hyde-prepared Dodge Magnum as folks hunkered down in mid 30s temps. The pole was his second in a row after also starting first at Richmond. Waltrip timed second and was again the bridesmaid for the start. For the third time in four races, Waltrip started from the front row - but without the benes of being the pole winner.

Allison, Yarborough, and Donnie Allison rounded out the top five starters. Richard Petty, the previous year's Carolina 500 winner, could muster no better than tenth and started alongside his perennial rival, Pearson. Petty raced his winning Dodge Charger for the final time at Riverside, but the Petty Enterprises team struggled to find the desired speed in the three races with its version of the Dodge Magnum. 

An overnight heavy snowfall postponed the second round of qualifying on Friday. NASCAR floated the idea that the back half of the field would be slotted based on practice speeds. Instead, track clearing efforts and "warming temperatures" in the 40s allowed the second round to be held on Saturday as well as the annual Union 76 Pit Crew Championship. Parsons' crew led by Jake Elder won the competition.

When the green fell on race day, Waltrip seized the lead from Bonnett and led the first 33 laps. Waltrip's friend, competitor, and future adversary, Bobby Allison, then went to the point and led for 119 of the next 136 laps. 

Though Allison was leading, Waltrip maintained a solid pace. When smoke began to trail from the #88 Gatorade Chevy around lap 65, however, NASCAR black flagged him. Ol' DW was none too happy about having to pit and blamed the smoke on a short-term problem with an overfilled transmission. He was convinced the smoke would soon dissipate. Nonetheless, he had to honor the black flag. After addressing the issue and losing several laps, he was no longer a factor and eventually finished 21st.

The next 100 laps or so saw multiple leaders. Bobby, Pearson, Cale, Parsons, and Dick Brooks in Junie Donlavey's Truxmore Ford all got time at the front. None held the lead for more than 20+ laps. 

As the race moved past halfway, however, Pearson's #21 Mercury seized the lead and clicked off a ton of laps. The Silver Fox led for 166 laps as others began their strategy as to how to retake - and hold - the lead in the waning laps.  

With about 60 laps to go, Bobby Allison wasn't feeling well and could race no further. His brother, Donnie, was summoned to relieve Bobby in Bud Moore's Ford. Though he quickly ran to Bobby's aid, he wasn't quite prepared to do so. Following the race, Donnie quipped:
When they told me Bobby needed help, it was almost too late. I had just opened a can of beer. I thought, boy, is this going to taste good. Then someone grabbed me and said Bobby was sick or something. I dropped the beer and took off. I couldn't turn Bobby down. 
As Donnie belted in to Bobby's #15 Ford, Pearson and Parsons began going toe to toe at the front. With about 40 laps to go and Parsons mirroring Pearson's laps, Benny decided it was go-time. Pearson arc'd into turn one, and Benny took more of a straight-line entrance into the corner. The minor difference was just enough, and Parsons nicked the corner of Pearson to send him spinning. Benny and a fast-closing Donnie in his brother's car slipped under the 21.

Pearson managed to avoid hitting the wall, gathered his car, and angrily set off in pursuit of Parsons' #72 Chevy. Seven laps later and with a calming heart rate, Pearson pulled back alongside Parsons and went back in front - and this time to stay.

For the first time since the 1977 Southern 500 at Darlington - six months earlier - Pearson was first under the checkered flag. The win was his first at Rockingham since sweeping both races in 1973. He also captured milestone Cup win number 100. 

Donnie got by Parsons to notch a P2 for Bobby, and the King finished fourth. The top five was easily his best finish so far in the Magnum after back-to-back poor finishes and DNFs at Daytona and Richmond.

Audio of Universal Racing Network's radio broadcast of the race is available on Appalachian State's library website

Source: Spartanburg Herald


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