They say it pays to have friends and fans in high places, and right now NASCAR's 1976 point champion, Cale Yarborough, is not likely to argue. Four days before Sunday's Daytona 500 Yarborough had received a congratulatory telegram from a "down-to-earth, regular-type guy," a guy "just like you and me," a guy Yarborough calls "my buddy." And whether or not having Jimmy Carter in his corner played an inspirational part in Yarborough winning the race and $63,700, who knows? But Richard Petty voted for Gerald Ford, and Petty ran over a crankshaft that fell out of someone else's engine, gouging the belly of his Dodge. A curious way to lose a race. "I always knew we'd rise again one day," said Yarborough, who now is the only man other than Petty to have won the 500 more than once.
Yarborough is a politician himself—a county commissioner in his home state of South Carolina—but Petty is the one they call King, and early in the race the five-time Daytona winner provided most of the excitement. He had pulled into his pit on the pace lap with his engine smoking badly. The hood came up, and three men dived underneath to plug a leaking oil breather tube. The race started without Petty, who managed to get under way a lap later. But a yellow flag came out on the fourth lap—Bobby Wawak's car, which bore the inscription WITH GOD YOU'RE ALWAYS A WINNER, caught fire—and Petty was able to make up the lost lap by racing to the finish line before the leaders got there to take the caution flag. However, he was dead last; 39 cars lay between him and Yarborough. But Petty began a brilliant drive, gaining seconds a lap on the front-runners despite having to weave through traffic. On the 61st lap he surged into the lead, having passed every car in the race in the virtuoso effort. It was not to last. On the 108th lap his engine dropped a valve, and just moments later he ran over that errant crankshaft and pulled into his garage, the belly of his Dodge bleeding oil. "I've had enough," he said as he got out of the car and climbed to the top of his trailer to watch the rest of the race.
Most of the afternoon a cluster of top drivers had drafted each other for the lead: Yarborough, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, A. J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker. But shortly after the midway point they began dropping out or losing laps: Allison was finished when a blown right rear tire tore up the rear end of his car. Pearson went with a dropped valve. Foyt was slowed by a vibrating rear wheel. Waltrip had an air-wrench break during a pit stop and he pulled away with only one lug nut holding a wheel on. A cautious lap later he was in the pits again to complete the tire change but too far in back to be a contender anymore.
With 10 laps remaining, Yarborough led Parsons by inches, with Baker, who had spun earlier, a lap behind in third place.
"I was running just as hard as I could through the corners but I couldn't shake Benny," said Yarborough. Parsons had seemed in a perfect position to slingshot Yarborough on the final lap, but suddenly he fell back a dozen or so car lengths, and the race was over.
Parsons pulled into his garage and lit a cigarette even before he took off his helmet, but he didn't puff on it; his lips were pursed too tightly in dejection. "Close..." a crew member said. "Does close count?" asked Parsons, who had won the 500 in 1975. "I blew it," said Parsons after he climbed out of his Chevy. "Turn Two was giving me a hard time all day. I had to get through there perfect or the wind would catch me. Toward the end I was saying to myself, 'Please let me stay on his bumper so if he makes a mistake I'm ready,' but it was me who made the mistake. A couple of laps from the end I wasn't perfect in Turn Two and I had to ease off the throttle to keep from hitting the wall. When I did, I lost Cale's draft."
And with it, the race. Yarborough had made no mistakes, and deserved the victory; it had been nine years since he had been in the winner's circle at the 500. Last year he had blown five engines during race week, the final one on the opening lap of the 500. But he was first in all three races he entered at Daytona this year—in addition to the 500 he won one of the two 125-mile qualifiers and the finale of the International Race of Champions series on Friday—and it seemed to make up for his past miseries.
On Thursday, Yarborough and Petty each had won a qualifying race with relative ease, but in timed single-car qualification runs for pole position the previous Sunday competition had been sharp. Following a few hot practice laps, Waltrip suggested that Foyt would have to settle for second fastest—after Waltrip, of course. Last year Foyt and Waltrip had been fined $1,000 each and had had their front-row spots taken away because they had squirted illegal nitrous oxide into their intake manifolds during qualifying, so this year NASCAR's competition director and chief technical inspector, Bill Gazaway, was on his toes for what proved to be a provocative guessing and second-guessing game.
In the garage Foyt stood by his Chevy Laguna and, loud enough for Gazaway to hear in his office at the end of the building, said, "If they find anything wrong with that thing this year, I can guarantee you they'll never see me back here again. I'll put $100,000 cash money on the line, right now, that says that thing's legal. I got nothing to worry about."
Waltrip, meanwhile, wanted the pole bad; he was psyched up for it. "There goes Gatorade," said Parsons, an irreverent reference to Waltrip, whose sponsor is the thirst quencher. Waltrip came off Turn Two and shot down the back-straight. "He's got a top-end gear on that car, doesn't he?" asked Parsons, more a statement than a question. "He's going to be awful disappointed if he doesn't get the pole."