Someday the driver leading the final lap of the Daytona 500 is going to slow down to 50 mph, if that's what it takes to get into second place after the 499th mile. That's the place to be if you want to be first after the 500th mile. The name of the game is Off the Point, the point being what Grand National stock car drivers call the leader of the 190-mph "train" that comes charging down the back straight of the 2.5-mile Speedway at the end of the 500.
On the last lap of Sunday's race, Darrell Waltrip, a two-time Grand National champion but never a winner of the 500, led Cale Yarborough, last year's winner, by...well, you wouldn't have wanted to try to squeeze between their bumpers. Yarborough was behind the wheel of the fastest car in town, a fact everybody, including Waltrip and a record crowd of some 130,000 spectators, had known for a week. In time trials on Feb. 12, Yarborough became the first driver to break the 200-mph barrier at Daytona, clocking 201.848. With the bright orange nose of his Monte Carlo SS filling Waltrip's mirror at the start of Sunday's final lap, Waltrip was so resigned to the inevitable that his "plan" was to hope for a miracle—maybe Yarborough would get dirt in his eye or be struck by lightning. Never mind that Waltrip had been leading for the last 37 laps. In the lead was precisely where Yarborough wanted him to be—on the point. Down the back straight it was no contest and no surprise when Yarborough snapped the slingshot, diving past Waltrip as they headed into Turn 3 and waltzing off to take the checkered flag. What's more, the car drafting along behind him, driven by Dale Earnhardt, edged Waltrip for second. Each of the three—and fourth-place finisher Neil Bonnett, too—drove a Monte Carlo SS, whose sleek nose was designed by Chevrolet especially for racing.
But the victory really belonged to Yarborough's crew chief, curly-haired Wad-dell Wilson, 47, who has been building race car engines for 20 years. For the last six, his car, whatever its sheet metal, has been the fastest at the 500, and three times it has been the winner—for Buddy Baker in 1980 and for Yarborough this year and last. Wilson shrugs when asked his secret. "Fine tuning, maybe," he says. "I'm a perfectionist, and if I can't fix it right, I won't work on it." And indeed, No. 28 was perfection, winning the pole, a 125-mile qualifying race last Thursday and the 500. Yarborough is the first driver to score that hat trick at Daytona since Fireball Roberts did it in 1962, the year Yarborough, now 43, first drove in the 500.
Actually, Yarborough first had cracked 200 mph in qualifying last year, but on the second of his two laps his car spun and sailed into the air, landing on its roof, which nullified the run. No cars flipped during qualifying this year, but later, in the Clash, a 50-mile sprint for pole winners of last season's Grand National events, Ricky Rudd's Thunderbird got sideways coming out of Turn 4 and then went airborne. The T-bird leaped and twisted like a hooked marlin, bouncing on its nose, violently tossing off blue and yellow panels of sheet metal. Rudd was taken to a hospital, but the next day he was back at practice, with two black eyes and feeling "about three inches shorter," but with nothing broken.
Four days later, in one of Thursday's two qualifying races, Randy LaJoie spun in the same spot, took off at the same spot and then caromed off an infield retaining wall. His crash looked even more devastating than Rudd's, but in Halifax Hospital the next morning there wasn't a bruise on him. Then in Friday's consolation race for non-qualifiers, Natz Peters spun where the others had, bounced off LaJoie's wall and then back onto the track into the path of Jim Hurlbert. When their cars collided they burst into flames. That night Hurlbert underwent six hours of surgery—he had suffered severe facial injuries and a fractured right ankle—and he was in serious but stable condition by morning. Peters .suffered first-and second-degree burns on his face.
Turn 4 suddenly had a new name: Calamity Corner. The havoc was caused by a small dip where the pavement had settled over a tunnel to the infield. As a car crossed the dip it would get squirrelly, a condition worsened by the cars' own propensity to fly when they get sideways. It has been happening at Daytona since the introduction of shorter-wheelbase cars in '81. The latest theory is that because of the cars' rounded sides and flat undersides, when they get sideways they behave like wings. Another theory is that the inside of the car packs up with air when it's sliding sideways, like an umbrella opening in the wind. Whatever the cause, says 1975 winner Benny Parsons shaking his head, "It's unbelievable how a two-ton race car can be lifted up in the air just like a kite. Unbelievable!" Despite at least seven flips at Daytona since the advent of the shorter-wheelbase cars, NASCAR's president, Bill France, has yet to indicate he finds anything alarming. He sees no reason for NASCAR to conduct wind tunnel tests, whereby it might discover what could be done to prevent cars from becoming airborne. France watches the aerobatics and repeats the undeniable—that a Grand National stock car is the safest race car on earth. That Rudd and LaJoie can survive such apparent disasters reasonably intact appears to signify to France that NASCAR's precautions are adequate. But France doesn't say much about drivers who don't come off so well, for example Bruce Jacobi, who flipped at Daytona last year and is now in a nursing home in Indianapolis. Jacobi is no longer in a coma; he can move his eyes and his fingers now, and his wife, YaDa, believes he can comprehend some things, although she says he looks as if he has been in a concentration camp for 20 years. She has stopped counting the medical bills, but guesses they've reached half a million dollars. NASCAR's insurance for drivers has a $25,000 maximum payout; a member of NASCAR's administrative staff says that any more coverage would be too expensive. Besides, France knows that racers, being racers, will compete even if there is no insurance.
Last Saturday, on the eve of the 500, Hal Needham, the stunt man turned movie director who owns the car driven by Harry Gant, was a guest on a radio show hosted by Ken Squier. After first boasting that he had been drinking for nearly six hours, Needham said something very sober, and sobering: "Today is the day of the gladiator. People want to see fast cars and a lot of wrecks—and if you don't want that, get out of NASCAR." It's something Bill France might also believe but can't afford to admit.
The next day, after Ronald Reagan had intoned, "Gentlemen, start your engines" by phone hookup from the White House, Yarborough jumped into the lead at the start of the 500, pursued by the Buick of Bobby Allison, the 46-year-old grandfather who won the 1983 Grand National championship after chasing it for 23 years. Tagging along was Terry Labonte, who had shared the front row with Yarborough, also cracking 200. But for the first 50 laps Richard Petty was the most impressive driver on the track. He had started 34th, after blowing an engine in his qualifying race, and was running in the famed Petty high groove, coming so close to the wall in Calamity Corner that his fenders just missed streaking it with electric blue paint, and so high in Turn 2 that he was running in the short shadow of the wall at the very top of the banking. On the 30th lap he moved into the Top 10; on the 50th he passed Allison for the lead, and the crowd was lifted to its feet, its excitement indicating that the King was forgiven for last fall's cheating scandal. After winning a 500-miler at Charlotte in October, Petty's Pontiac was found to have an oversize engine; he pleaded ignorance. His brother Maurice, who built the engine, accepted the blame. Richard subsequently moved out of the family's complex in Randleman, N.C., turning over the shop's operation to his son Kyle, and signed on with another team. But his stab at his 199th Grand National win ended on Lap 92 when a camshaft broke while he was up in his groove in Turn 2.
Allison had dropped out with a broken engine on Lap 61, leaving Yarborough in command. The only cars that could stay with him were the Monte Carlos of Labonte and the hard-charging Earnhardt, and now Waltrip, who had worked his way up from 26th. After the last of seven yellow flags, the green light came on with 18 laps remaining, and it was a sprint to the finish. On Lap 191 Labonte cut a tire and scraped the Turn 2 wall, so for the final 10 laps it was essentially a three-car race—although the lead "train" included six cars, and sixth place was only .6 second behind Yarborough. Everyone in the line had his own strategy, none very complicated. Waltrip was waiting for a big break, Yarborough was counting on horsepower, Earnhardt was sticking with Yarborough, and everybody else was simply out to grab what was left.
The edgiest personal rivalry in stock car racing today is between Waltrip and Yarborough, which made the victory a little bit sweeter for Cale, as if $198,300, his team's take of the week's $1.2 million purse, wasn't sweet enough. Waltrip claimed to be happy with third, and perhaps he was, considering that he was carried out last year on a stretcher, another victim of the now infamous infield retaining wall. But Yarborough's own evaluation of the race revealed the true hero to be Waddell Wilson. Said Cale, "I didn't see a car out there all day that I couldn't pass when I wanted to." And Waltrip's was the one he'd wanted to pass the most.