- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 24, 1980
GOING INTO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES 500, THE FINAL RACE of the Grand National stock car season, Dale Earnhardt led Cale Yarborough in the race for the Cup by a mere 29 points out of some 4,000. Yarborough had the best car; he had been the fastest qualifier 13 times during the year, a NASCAR record. Earnhardt, by contrast, had not taken a single pole position. Often his problem was horsepower. At some races his Monte Carlo just didn't have enough, which inspired Earnhardt—in his second full season on NASCAR's premier circuit—to show folks just how hard he could drive. "I'll tell you what makes that car run," said David Ifft, crew chief for Benny Parsons, the driver who would win the Ontario, Calif., race. "Dale Earnhardt makes that car run."
The 29-year-old Earnhardt himself is entirely nonchalant about his go-for-broke driving style. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" he says with a shrug. He smiles when he hears that Yarborough has complained about Earnhardt's racing too close to him. "Well, what's ol' Cale been sayin' about me today?" he asks, cheerfully lacking reverence for the 40-year-old three-time NASCAR champion.
It had taken more than Earnhardt's driving, though, to get his team where it was. It is a relatively ragtag bunch, mostly young, mostly Californian, in a pursuit in which experience has seemed inseparable from success and in which speed secrets and family secrets have often been one and the same. The outfit had been deserted in midseason by its chief, Jake Elder, who felt the rest of the crew was not only too green but also too laid-back. When Elder departed, young Doug Richert became crew chief. Richert had worked as a mechanic on the team 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.
So there they were, Earnhardt and Yarborough, side by side on the front row. Earnhardt began fading shortly after the start. There were 30- to 40-mph gusts of wind blowing across the track, upsetting his car's handling. Yarborough stayed with the front pack, pulling five, 10, 20 seconds away from him.
It got worse for Earnhardt before it got better. On Lap 69 a yellow caution flag came out, and 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 most likely saved the championship for him. As the field rounded Turn 4 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, in a position in which the draft created by Yarborough's car would allow Earnhardt to stay with his rival despite the horsepower deficiency.
All he had to do to clinch the championship was hang in there. But when he came in for his final scheduled pit stop, he lost his damn composure. There's no other way to put it. First he slid into his own pit wall, scattering his crew. Then, while they were trying to change the right rear tire, he tore out of the pit with the car still up on the jack. A black flag came out for Earnhardt, forcing him to come into the pits once more to put on the three lug nuts that had been left behind when he rushed out onto the track.