SI Vault
Sam Moses
February 26, 1979
While Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison duked it out by Turn 3, Richard Petty stole on by and into victory lane in the Daytona 500
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February 26, 1979

It Was Petty Larceny

While Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison duked it out by Turn 3, Richard Petty stole on by and into victory lane in the Daytona 500

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"After we hit the wall, he came over and started calling me a son of a bitch and a dirty bastard. Bobby had stopped, and he punched at Bobby through his window screen. When Bobby got out of his car, Cale started hitting him with his helmet. If he had hit me, I'd have beat his brains out.

"Won't do any good to say anything else."

Well, that seems to be quite enough. Especially considering it had been the second time that afternoon those three had found themselves sliding in the mud, not to mention slinging it. On Lap 32 Donnie had led Bobby and Yarborough when Bobby drifted up into his brother, tapped him in the rear quarter panel and sent him into a backward slide down the back straight, with the entire 41-car field coming at him at nearly 195 mph. Yarborough dived down to the infield to avoid them, and everyone else slipped by without incident.

After they had been pushed out of the mud and had pitted for adjustments, Yarborough found himself three laps behind, Bobby two, Donnie one. The race was barely restarted when a six-car crash in Turn 4 knocked out David Pearson and brought out the yellow flag again. While 120,000 pairs of eyes were on the mess, a car called the "Ghost" was pushed unnoticed behind the pit wall, its ignition system having never worked from the start.

The Ghost, another Olds, this one driven by Buddy Baker, had turned a record qualifying lap of 196.049 mph the previous Sunday. Then, on Thursday, Baker had backed that up by winning a 125-mile warmup race for the 500. While the Ghost was the car to beat, its qualifying mark was largely a result of the speedway's new surface, which ironed out many of the infamous bumps and boosted speeds by nearly 10 mph. "Racing at Daytona used to be like playing basketball in a pair of loafers," says Waltrip.

"Used to be," the man says. But some of the drivers of the dozen or so cars that either spun or crashed—contributing to a total of seven yellow flags for 57 of the 200 laps and holding Petty's average speed to 143.977 mph—might think their cars are still wearing loafers.

The race was half over before a pattern began to develop. Donnie Allison had made up the lap he lost and was in second with Benny Parsons leading. Petty was fifth, his car one of those left unscathed.

But it was Yarborough who was on Parsons' tail on the track, although he was three laps behind in the standings. Yarborough had a plan: draft the leader (it is a proven and practiced law of racetrack physics that two stock cars nose to tail can travel not only faster than two side by side, but also faster than either car could go alone), pray for yellow flags, and when one comes, make up a lap. This can be done under NASCAR rules by slipping past the leader before he reaches the start-finish line.

On Lap 105 another yellow flag came out. Yarborough passed Parsons, sped around to the back of the field and made up a lap. He was now only two laps down. Parsons began slowing with an overheating engine, and Donnie Allison took the lead. After working through the field, Yarborough was glued to Allison's bumper. When another yellow came out on Lap 121, Cale shot by Donnie in Turn 3—where they were to meet again, of course. He was now only one lap down, and for the first time that afternoon his crew was smiling. His car was still somewhat out of kilter from its excursion into the mud, however. "It's drivable, but it's not right," said one mechanic. "But Cale's hanging on."

On Lap 139 Yarborough was on Allison's tail yet again, with Petty behind Cale, in second, still running steadily, waiting. When the yellow came out once more, Cale zoomed by Donnie again. After weaving through the entire field a third time, suddenly Yarborough was back on the same lap with the leaders. With 30 laps remaining, it was Allison leading, Yarborough on his tail and Petty, Waltrip and Foyt trailing and drafting each other. And Cale stayed inches from Donnie's bumper for 29� laps, or until the excitement began.

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