In winning last Sunday's Daytona 500 by 33.2 seconds, Bobby Allison survived or otherwise overcame 1) a personal slump spanning nearly three years, during which he agonized over and outlived a slow Mercury and an even slower Matador; 2) a Daytona jinx during which, despite being one of NASCAR's very best drivers, he had somehow managed not to win the 500 in the 18 times he tried; 3) his car—a Thunderbird, believe it or not—which hadn't been seen on a stock-car track since 1960, when the last Thunderbird racer was a convertible; 4) a crash in Thursday's qualifying heat when Buddy Baker slid in an oil slick and smashed into Allison, putting them both out of that race and sentencing the Bud Moore crew, which takes care of Allison's "luxury liner," to 18 hours of hard labor; 5) a crash on the 68th lap of the 500 in which he bumped Ron Hutcherson while avoiding a melee that knocked A. J. Foyt's Buick end over end; 6) another crash in which he was squeezed between Hutcherson and the wall at 185 mph, hit them both, the impact on the left side knocking his steering wheel out of kilter for the remainder of the race, the impact on the right bending the front fender into the tire, which one lap later caused 7) a blowout.
Allison's slump had been one of the worst in recent NASCAR history, and during those three losing years he had often been depressed, discouraged and troubled by self-doubt. But he was satisfied Sunday, and he deserved to be. "To some people it seems like I enjoy failing," he said, "but that's really not the case. I'm so tickled now I can't see straight."
Allison had begun the race from the 33rd position on the grid and spent the early stages straggling along behind such as King Richard Petty in a Dodge, hot young Darrell Waltrip in a Chevy and 1976 Daytona winner David Pearson in a Mercury. The first 60 laps went off at a record speed with no caution flags—that, too, a record—until Petty's right rear tire blew as he led Waltrip and Pearson out of Turn 4. Petty got sideways, Pearson hit Waltrip, Waltrip hit Petty, and all three were out, although Waltrip, chasing championship points, eventually finished the race 62 laps back, his Monte Carlo somewhat truncated.
NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough, in an Oldsmobile, inherited the lead at that point with Benny Parsons, also in an Oldsmobile, second. Then Parsons blew a tire and spun in Turn 1. In avoiding Parsons, Lennie Pond tapped Foyt, whose Buick took off and began flipping. Foyt's teammate Hutcherson and Allison also collided, although not seriously, but Parsons lost two laps. Foyt was admitted to the hospital for observation, X-rayed and was pronounced shaken up but otherwise unhurt.
When the green light came on after that smash-up, Buddy Baker—another Oldsmobile driver—Allison and Yarborough took over where Petty, Waltrip and Pearson had left off, running nose to tail. On the 117th lap, Allison, lapping Hutcherson, got squeezed against the wall and banged up both sides of the Thunderbird, forcing him to pit to change a tire. Yarborough began dropping back with a misfire, Baker got a flat, and another yellow came out. When the green came on again, there were 18 laps remaining and Allison led Baker by a mere 1.6 seconds. Baker caught and passed him in traffic, but Allison shortly repassed Baker. In their long careers neither had won Daytona and it was a toss-up as to who wanted it more. But with four laps remaining, Baker's engine blew, and the $56,300 first prize was Allison's. Yarborough and Parsons followed him across.
Baker's late-race frustration was nothing new. In 1973 he had also been leading the 500 when an engine blew. Baker may have said the same thing then that he did after Sunday's 500: "It looked like I was going to run away with it. Then that oil-pressure needle started dropping and so did my heart. All of a sudden I felt like crying. Damn, what have I got to do to win here?"
In the last three years Allison, too, must have often felt like crying. Also his friends. The night before the race, frying fresh flounder by a camper in the parking lot, one of them described the growing feeling about Allison. "I loved Bobby like a brother," he said. "I stuck with him when he drove that Mercury and couldn't win. I stuck with him all last year when he drove that turkey of a Matador. But this year, when he switched to a Thunderbird, a damn Thunderbird, well, I just gave up on him."
The days leading up to the race had been full of intrigue, as usual, much of it centering on competition for the pole and none of it involving Allison. After three days of practice, the two fastest cars were Foyt's Buick at 186.297 mph, and Yarborough's Oldsmobile at 185.951. The speeds were slower than last year's, and the crews had to sweat to reach them because the new cars, especially the Oldsmobiles, weren't handling well. But in the warmup session before the official qualifying began, Yarborough cracked off a startling lap of 190 mph. "Maybe we'll have to talk with Cale," said Parsons, Yarborough's quasi-teammate (they have the same sponsor). "He seems to have hit on something."
What Yarborough had hit on—which Parsons knew full well—was a tricky rear spoiler, the strip of aluminum rising from the back of the trunk. The NASCAR rule book says of spoilers, "In the interest of safety and handling characteristics, a non-adjustable spoiler not exceeding three inches in height may be attached to the rear deck lid." The legality of Yarborough's spoiler was arguable. It was approximately 4� inches high, but because it was swept back, the edge was only about three inches above the trunk, which brought it within the ball park of the rules. Competition Director Bill Gazaway couldn't help but notice the spoiler of course, and he made Yarborough trim off about one-quarter inch. But even after the retrenchment, Yarborough's spoiler was nearly half again the size of anyone else's. Gazaway allowed him to use it in qualifying, and he went out and won the pole at 187.536 mph.
NASCAR officials knew that the pole would likely go to Yarborough or Foyt. Yarborough, the NASCAR champion and a diplomat, is their golden boy; Foyt, a USAC star and obstinate, is a thorn in their side. Foyt loves to come down South and beat the stock-car boys at their own game, and when he does he usually gloats about it. "That ain't real racin' NASCAR does," he says. "Them big ol' stock cars is like taxicabs." NASCAR officials, in particular Gazaway, must grind their teeth in their sleep hearing things like that, especially from Foyt, who has a leg to stand on. So it was not likely that NASCAR was going to help Foyt win the pole at their biggest race by taking away an edge that Yarborough cheated fair and square to get.