Sommers, a rookie, had raised eyebrows by qualifying third fastest, after Parsons and Donnie Allison. The night before qualifying, Ifft had slept fitfully, scheming in his semi-sleep how to squeeze an extra ounce of speed out of Sommers' Chevy—by the book or otherwise. "He shouted out once and woke up in a sweat," said his roommate, crew member Lou LaRosa. "He told me he was having this nightmare: Gazaway was going over Sam's car with a fine-tooth comb, and David was behind the fence watching, locked out of the pits."
More than just bogus gas tanks turned up at Talladega. When Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother, appeared with a new, unapproved aerodynamic nose on his Matador, Gazaway took one look and promptly sent Allison back home to nearby Hueytown to put the old nose back on. Petty, among others, showed up with a heavily tinted windshield on his car. It was the result of an adhesive coating material that prevents cracking, but it gave Petty's long Dodge a malevolent look—the physical translation of the expression "mean machine." Petty liked the windshield, but some of the drivers who drafted him did not. They thought it dangerous because they couldn't peer through Petty's car to the track ahead when they were on his tail. "I think that's why he likes it," said Ricky Rudd, a 20-year-old rookie and a quick learner.
The 10 fastest qualifiers were Chevrolets, including Donnie Allison's, Waltrip's, and Yarborough's, while some of the non-GM favorites had engine troubles. Among these were Bobby Allison (18th in the 40-car field), David Pearson (21st) and Baker (23rd). Top qualifier among the non-Chevys was Petty, 11th at 188.664 mph. That was slightly slower than Janet Guthrie, who had qualified at 189.391 and also had broken her own closed-course women's record of 188.957, set at Indianapolis.
Guthrie's engine blew to bits late in the race, bringing out a yellow flag. When the racing resumed with 40 laps remaining, it was a sprint to the finish. With hot-shoes like Parsons and Pearson and Sommers out with blown engines, and Petty chugging around with a burned valve, four drivers were drafting each other for the lead: Donnie Allison, Baker, Skip Manning and Yarborough.
One way or another, the jinx got all of them: Allison got faint; Baker was slowed by an overheating engine in his Ford and finished sixth; Yarborough got stuck in fourth gear and lost the draft, although he managed to finish second and now leads Petty by a slim margin in defense of his NASCAR championship.
The jinx hit 1976 Rookie of the Year Manning the hardest. Manning, running the race of his life, blew an oil cooler with three laps remaining while he was dueling Waltrip for the lead. The smoke brought out the yellow flag, and it stayed out until the checkered fell as Manning cruised around with a white cloud billowing behind his Chevy to finish third.
About the only man to avoid the clutch of the jinx was fourth-place finisher Rudd, but he only missed by the skin of his teeth. On his last practice lap Saturday afternoon, he blew his only engine. Sunday morning he bought Waltrip's backup engine—one that Rudd reckons had 30 more horsepower than his own—and his crew installed it just in time to start the race. With his impressive finish, Rudd now leads the race for Rookie of the Year, which is worth about $40,000.
So the jinx missed him. But he's still fresh blood; it was only his second 500. There is plenty of time.