50 Years of nascar racing ~ Seven up: The king wins his seventh title (Post 12)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Dale Earnhardt went the entire 1997 without a win, and in fact is five events away from going two years without a win. He sits fifth in points, a career year for most drivers, but a terrible one by the Intimidator's standards, and that coupled with his mysterious health problems has a lot of folks saying Dale is past his prime and should retire. Is that necessarily the case? Let's take a look back at the other 7-time NASCAR champion, and the King's 1979 season.
Richard Petty had a thoroughly miserable year in 1978. For the first time in his storied career he had failed to win a single event. The press and even some of Richard's fans were quietly saying it was time for Petty to hang up his helmet. In fact, questions concerning Petty's eventual retirement had been being asked for years. Even in 1976, when Richard won a mere 13 events and his sixth title, Petty was asked by reporters the day he clinched that championship if he planned to retire at the end of the year and go out on top. "The hardest thing to do is to quit when you're on top." Richard mused, "As long as you're winning, you're afraid to even think about quitting. Right now, I'm winning as much as we've ever done, so retiring is not exactly crossing my mind."
But it was obvious the pressure of racing and sponsor commitments were getting to the King, and in fact, during the off season he had to have surgery to remove a part of his stomach due to recurring problems with ulcers. To make the Riverside race that opened the 1977 season, Petty had to crawl out of his hospital bed against doctors orders. Richard had grown a beard to help hide how gaunt looking he was, but even at that, the King looked like he had aged a decade in those few months. In 1976 and 1977 no one could beat the powerhouse combination of Cale Yarborough and Junior Johnson's all conquering Chevys, but Petty did all right for himself, finishing second in the title hunt both years, with a combined eight wins in the two seasons. Then in 1978 it all seemed to fall apart.
Most of the problem, at least in the early part of the season, could be blamed on the King's mount. His tried and true Dodge Chargers had finally gone beyond NASCAR's age eligibility rules, and the King was forced to saddle up the new Dodge Magnum. Unfortunately, Dodge's Disco dinosaur was a blatant affront to the wind, and the wind hated it back. No one, not even Petty engineering, could get those hideous boxes to run on the big tracks. In the first 18 races of 1978, Petty scored just 6 top-five finishes, with only one of them taking place on a superspeedway, a fourth in that year's Firecracker 400, at a track he had once all but held the title to. Finally, Petty decided all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't get those Humpty Dumpty Dodges winning again, and put the mutant buffaloes out to pasture. In doing so, Petty ended his family's 30 year association with Chrysler, a dark day for Mopar fans. The Petty team began preparing Chevrolet Monte Carlos, which were the dominant car of the time.
Petty made his Chevy debut at Michigan, August 20th, 1978 and was running in the top five with ten laps to go when the car blew a tire and put him hard into the wall. Despite the severity of the crash, the King was able to joke, " Well we know how to build a Chevy. Now we'll find out what it's like to fix one." Petty managed four more top 5's for the rest of the season, and clawed his way back to sixth in the standings. Still, more than a few people suggested with the Dodges retired, Petty should retire as well. One possible explanation for Richard's reluctance to hang up the helmet boils down to a simple matter of dollars and cents. In the worst year of his career in a decade, Petty earned $242,000 plus, or approximately $100,000 more than he did in 1967 when he won the championship and 27 races. The sport had changed a lot in a decade.
Petty fans had their fingers crossed as Richard started the 1979 season. He finally had a competitive car, but besides his traditional nemeses, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison, there were some new faces muscling into the spotlight. One was the heavy footed but big-mouthed Darrell Waltrip who was so unpopular with the fans they treat Jeff Gordon like Mother Theresa compared to the way the booed DW. The other was a contender for rookie of the year that season, a brash kid from North Carolina with a "take no prisoners" driving style, by the name of Dale Earnhardt. It did seem to many that the King was grooming his son to take over the throne in preparation of his own retirement. Kyle Petty would run a few races that year. Apparently Richard didn't want Kyle running too fast at first. He made him drive the unlamented Dodge Magnums.
The first race of the season didn't go too well. Richard blew an engine at Riverside 14 laps in and finished a dismal 32nd place. Of course the critics were already writing an obituary for his career. But the King bounced back in convincing style and won the Daytona 500, after Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough decided they would rather wreck and have a fist fight than win. All was right in the world again, with the exception of that odd looking Oldsmobile emblem on the nose of the 43 car.
The next race, at Rockingham, Donnie and Cale tangled again and in the course of their wreck took out leading contenders Petty and DW with them. After that, Richard seemed back on track, finishing in the top five in 16 of the following 19 races. Among those finishes were wins at Martinsville, Petty's first short track win since 1975, and at Michigan. But Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip were running strong as well. Even that Earnhardt kid took a win at Bristol in what was only his 16th Winston Cup start. While Petty was having a decent year, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison were having career type years and Petty was a distant third or fourth place contender in the middle part of the season, several hundred points out of the hunt. Darrell Waltrip emerged from the fray as the man to beat, with a 203 point lead over Bobby after DW won the Nashville race in July.
When it came to the stretch run, Petty Engineering, which had battled and won so many championships, showed its advantage over Darrell's team, DiGard. Things began falling apart for DW, particularly at Michigan in August when the team lost an engine, a problem that seemed to plague them all year, and DW finished 19th, while Richard won the race and cut Darrell's point lead to 155 points. Of course, old DW didn't help his own cause spinning himself out, not once but twice, at the Southern 500, the first time while he had a full lap lead on the field. DW suffered another disaster at the fall race in Dover, when a blown tire put him hard into the wall and relegated him to a 29th place finish. The cagey old veteran, Richard Petty, took full advantage of his rival's misfortune by winning the race, and the once insurmountable points lead DW enjoyed dwindled to 83 points. At Martinsville, Darrell's DiGard ride once again blew an engine. While the crew managed to swap engines (which was legal in those days) he still wound up in 11th, 29 laps off the pace. Richard placed second and the points differential dwindled to 48.
Perhaps the pressure was getting to Darrell, or maybe he still hadn't developed the maturity to control his temper yet. At North Wilkesboro, DW really shot himself in the foot. While battling for the lead with Bobby Allison, he grew impatient and Darrell laid a bumper into Bobby's Ford, spinning him out of the way. Allison wasn't real thrilled with the brash newcomer's lack of courtesy and taught him a lesson in manners and respecting one's elders by returning the favor and then some, pile driving DW into the wall. But DW wasn't done yet either. After he returned to the track many laps down, he decided to serve as a blocker for leader Benny Parsons to keep Allison, who was running second, from winning. NASCAR black flagged DW not once but twice and held him several laps. DW wound up 13th as Petty calmly drove to a third place finish and pulled within 17 points of "the human torpedo."
With three races left, Richard took his fifth win of the year at Rockingham, while Darrell suffered from an oil leak and limped on home 6th. Petty emerged not only with the trophy, but leading the points standings for the first time that year with an eight point advantage over Waltrip.
DW did what he could at Atlanta, leading some laps to score 5 crucial bonus points, and beating Petty, though only by one position, fifth versus sixth. Thus, going into the season finale at the 2.5 mile oval in Ontario, California, Waltrip carried a razor thin two point advantage over Petty. It would come down to which driver finished better in a single race.
In the end, the outcome was almost an anticlimax. DW spun out trying to avoid a car that had hit the wall and went a lap down. The King had a fast car and stayed on the lead lap, finishing fifth, while Darrell could muster no better than an 8th place finish. Richard Petty won his seventh championship by a mere 11 points, but whether a driver wins by 11 points or a landslide, the title is his, and King regained his throne. And of course in victory lane, Richard was asked if he planned to retire. The King just smiled and shook his head.
AFTERMATH- Darrell Waltrip lost that championship in heartbreaking fashion, but went on to win three titles. 1979 was the last championship for Richard Petty, though he continued to place in the top ten in points until the 1985 season. At that point he had set an incredible record of finishing in the top ten in points every full season he drove from 1960 onwards. (Recall Richard and the other Chrysler campaigners sat out most of 1965 due to the factory boycott.) 1984 also marked the last two victories Petty scored, numbers 199 and 200. In 1992 the King retired from the driver's seat. Dale Earnhardt was rookie of the year in 1979, despite missing four races after being injured at Pocono. Now of course, everyone is asking Earnhardt and Waltrip when they'll retire. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
ALSO OF NOTE: I received a lot of mail concerning the history series (Thank you all) and one question I've been asked frequently is what other historical information is available on the Net. I highly recommend the following two sites. TNN's site (www.country.com) is now running a series on NASCAR's history written by Greg Fielden who is THE MAN when it comes to stock car racing's history (And a hero of mine) In addition to the on line articles being excellent, his "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing" series is the definitive work on the subject and is also highly recommended. There is also a nice series of articles starting at the Martinsville Speedway home page (www.martinsvillespeedway.com) called "Martinsville Memories" The series is written by the tracks PR chief Steve Sheppard, the track's PR Director. His series includes several interesting vintage photographs, one of which Mr. Sheppard was kind enough to allow me to run in the article on Fred Lorenzen for which I am in his debt.
At present, Matt is not taking email correspondence at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments, please leave them below and he will read them at his leisure.