When Elder departed, young Doug Richert became crew chief. Richert had worked as a mechanic on the team throughout his professional life. That meant he had been at it for all of four years—ever since he was 16. Hardly anyone gave Earnhardt much chance at the championship after Elder left. Richert against Junior Johnson, the legendary crew chief for Yarborough? A mismatch made in heaven for Yarborough.
But a funny thing happened after Richert took over. A common spirit developed; the crew became even more relaxed, yet more determined. "We had something to prove," says Richert. "We were supposed to fall on our butts, go down the tubes. We didn't. There was a lot of adrenaline flowing. We knew we could do the job."
Richert and his men not only proved something, but they also cracked a myth: that stock-car racing's secrets are buried decades deep. Says Earnhardt, "There are no deep, dark secrets. That's part of the old philosophy my daddy taught me: you prepare that race car the best you can, and you work hard and run hard and keep your damn composure about you, and it'll all work out."
So there they were, Earnhardt and Yarborough, side-by-side on the front row. Yarborough, not one to feather-foot under any condition—and certainly not with another championship just 500 miles away—was confident that a fourth NASCAR title was his. Only Richard Petty, with seven, had ever won more. Petty would be starting three rows behind him. "Ah b'lieve ah'm going to win it," Yarborough would say.
Shortly before the start, Yarborough approached Earnhardt. It was the first time they had spoken all week. "Use your head," Yarborough said. "The both of us," Earnhardt replied. On the back-stretch, as the cars burbled along slowly on the pace lap, Earnhardt looked over and saw Yarborough looking back at him, giving him the thumbs-up sign, wishing him a good race.
For 365 of the 500 miles it was anything but a good race for Earnhardt. He began fading shortly after the start. There were 30- to 40-mph gusts blowing across the track, upsetting his car's handling, and he didn't have the horsepower to make up the difference. Yarborough stayed with the front pack, pulling five, 10, 20 seconds away from Earnhardt.
It got worse for Earnhardt before it got better. On Lap 69 a yellow caution flag came out, and Earnhardt and his crew miscalculated their position relative to the leader. He pitted for fuel too soon and lost a lap. In sixth position and needing fifth to assure himself of the championship, Earnhardt tried desperately to get back on the same lap with the leaders through the middle of the race. Twice he had excellent opportunities, but couldn't make it. Meanwhile, Yarborough kept circling the course near or in the lead. Earnhardt looked a loser.
Then, on Lap 145 the breaks started coming. Darrell Waltrip blew his engine, moving Earnhardt into fifth, his sanctuary. Six laps later there was another yellow flag after a spin, and when the green came back out, Earnhardt made a move that atoned for his earlier mistake and most likely saved the championship for him. As the field rounded Turn Four under the yellow, he broke out of the pack and, the moment the green flag fell, passed four cars and then blew past a surprised Yarborough, the leader, to unlap himself.
Then came another stroke of good luck for Earnhardt. The yellow flag came out again, which by NASCAR's rules allowed him to speed around to the back of the pack and make up the lap he had lost. When the cars resumed racing speed on Lap 156, Earnhardt again smoked past Yarborough and found himself in the lead for the first time. "I was ready, and they weren't," he said later.
Yarborough repassed Earnhardt, and a fine duel was under way. Earnhardt put his car inches from Yarborough's rear bumper as they flashed through lap after lap in a two-car convoy. He had Yarborough exactly where he wanted him, squarely in his sights and in a position in which the draft created by Yarborough's car would allow Earnhardt to stay with his rival despite the horsepower deficiency.