News & Media

Retro Racing: This season mirrors Petty-Waltrip battle of '79

November 18, 2011, Mark Aumann,

It's the perfect scenario: One, you've got the runner-up in the Daytona 500, clinging to the narrowest of leads as the up-and-coming star vies for his first Cup title. Two, there's a cagey, confident veteran who knows exactly what it'll take to wrestle the crown away. Meanwhile, a third driver who has dominated the championship so many years in a row has been eliminated and is racing for pride.

Sound familiar? It should, since it happened 32 years ago.

"I thought that was the longest race I ever drove Racing's the name of the game. Any time I get in [a car], I want to win the dang thing. "


Replace Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, and you've pretty much described the 1979 Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway.

Yarborough had won three consecutive championships and was primed for a fourth in 1979. But when he tangled with Donnie Allison on the last lap at Daytona -- allowing Petty to beat Waltrip by little more than the length of his Chevrolet -- it seemed to completely throw convention out the window.

Waltrip won seven races, and after beating Pearson at Talladega, held a seemingly insurmountable 229-point lead over Petty with 11 races remaining.

However, a series of unfortunate incidents allowed Petty to take huge bites out of the lead that "Jaws" had built. Waltrip cut a tire and smacked the wall at Dover. Then he was black-flagged after an incident with Bobby Allison at North Wilkesboro.

But Waltrip regained the points lead at Atlanta -- albeit a tenuous two-point cushion -- when the series traveled to California on Nov. 18, 1979.

Current NASCAR president Brian Z. France has talked about "Game 7 moments" -- and that's almost how Petty described his feelings before that race.

"It's down to a one-race shootout," Petty said. "It's like playing the World Series or something. They play six games and they've just got to play the last game. And that's why we're here today.

"I don't think it's going to come down to Darrell outdriving me or me outdriving him. It's just going to come down to who's got the best luck on this particular day."

On the other hand, the usually brash Waltrip spoke as if the championship had already been lost.

"Well, we've had a great year," Waltrip said. "We've won more races than anybody else. And we're the leading money winners. It's going to be disappointing to me and the entire team if we can't win this championship.

"We know there's a possibility we won't and we've accepted that. But there's a lot of emotion in our pit today and we just hope we can hold it all together."

It was definitely a different era than what we see today. The race wasn't shown live. Instead, CBS opted to show highlights on its Sports Spectacular anthology series the following weekend.

The Waltrip-Petty showdown failed to generate much local interest, either. The grandstands were nearly empty on a beautiful fall afternoon -- although a very generous attendance figure of 56,153 was announced.

None of that seemed to matter to the drivers, because the racing was fast and furious right from the drop of the green flag. Yarborough won the pole, but immediately gave up the lead to Buddy Baker before the field made it back to the stripe.

Petty, starting fifth, made a daring three-wide pass of Benny Parsons and Yarborough on Lap 4 and Baker moved over to let Petty by on the next circuit, giving Petty five bonus points for leading a lap.

Baker was in the process of retaking the lead on the backstretch when John Rezek and D.K. Ulrich made contact in Turn 1, bringing out the first caution. While the rest of the lead lap cars pitted, Waltrip -- who started 10th -- stayed out to get his bonus points. Waltrip then pitted on the next lap and restarted ninth.

Then things went terribly wrong for the points leader. After the restart, Waltrip was racing with Joe Millikan when Rezek spun directly in front of them heading into Turn 3. Waltrip spun sideways on the track and eventually wound up backwards in the infield.

His No. 88 Chevrolet was relatively undamaged, so Waltrip returned to the track under caution, made one full circuit, then headed down pit road with several of the other lead-lap cars for four fresh tires. But after exiting the pits, he was placed directly behind the pace car and in front of leader Parsons -- nearly an entire lap down.

And when the green dropped, Parsons immediately lapped Waltrip. It was a situation from which Waltrip never was able to recover. He spent the entire race running among the leaders, as Parsons, Yarborough, Baker, Allison and Petty put on a driving clinic -- with Parsons holding off Allison by .42 seconds for the victory.

Waltrip finished eighth, the first car one lap down. That meant Petty's fifth-place finish was just enough to give him his seventh championship, by an 11-point margin.

"I thought that was the longest race I ever drove," Petty said, still sitting in the car after taking his helmet off. "Racing's the name of the game. Any time I get in [a car], I want to win the dang thing.

"It was one of them deals where I told them before, we was going to run as hard as we can -- and if we get the breaks, we'd win the championship and the race, too. But we didn't win the race. We didn't get the right breaks."

When it came to breaks, a disappointed Waltrip wondered aloud why he didn't receive one from NASCAR scoring.

"The one thing I don't understand was, the car over there spun in front of me and I spun to miss him," Waltrip said. "And I went around the race track. I came in to pit -- and all the other lead-lap cars were in the pit. When I went out, the pace car let them all go by and picked me up.

"At that point in time, I thought I was the leader. Later on, they said we was one lap down. And I never really understood that."

Petty never won another championship, but Waltrip eventually won three Cup titles -- in 1981, 1982 and 1985.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.