Happy Anniversary To The Race That Made NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 15 2019
Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers put on a big show at Daytona 40 years ago. Below is the story of that day. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

Forty years ago this weekend, a massive blizzard blanketed much of the east coast, dumping record-level snowfall from Massachusetts to Georgia in the process.

The inclement weather turned out to be a blessing in disguise for NASCAR, a good ol’ boy regional sport, trying to find its way into the homes of mainstream America.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 will mark the 40th anniversary of the race that continues to be the most-talked about non-tragic event in the sport’s history.  

The death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 edition of the Great American Race at Daytona, remains, arguably, NASCAR’s most-discussed single moment.

But when it comes to choosing a race that packed multiple punches and delivered the goods from start-to-finish, there can be no doubt it was the 1979 Daytona 500.

Following nearly a decade of limited television coverage, the France family finally convinced CBS Sports in late 1978 to take a chance and broadcast NASCAR’s crown jewel race live and flag-to-flag that winter.

The gamble paid off in the form of a ratings bonanza for CBS, which benefitted from millions of folks being trapped in their homes during the winter storm during a time when most households only had ABC, CBS, NBC and a handful of independent stations on their television channel lineup.

NASCAR and CBS executives were nervous an hour prior to the start as light, cold rain fell over the speedway.

But as fate would have it, the rain subsided and the race started less than 30 minutes after its advertised start.

There were dozens of storylines to be told as the field came to life and rumbled around 2.5-mile layout.

Buddy Baker was on the pole in Harry Ranier’s No. 28 Oldsmobile. The winner of his qualifying race on Thursday, the second-generation driver was among the favorites to take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Many other contenders had the Daytona Beach area buzzing that week. Among them were the flashy Darrell Waltrip driving for DiGard Motorsports, the bulldog-determined Cale Yarborough in the No. 11 Oldsmobile owned by Junior Johnson and Hoss Ellington’s No. 1 Olds 442 driven by Donnie Allison.

And there was some rookie named Dale Earnhardt in a yellow and white Buick owned by Rod Osterlund who had the industry insiders talking.

Riding a lengthy losing streak, the “King” Richard Petty was nothing more than a sentimental favorite on this Sunday.

With Ken Squier and David Hobbs describing the action for the national television audience from the tower overlooking the start-finish line, Bill Gazaway called for the green flag and the field rumbled by and set sail into Turn 1 with much of America watching.

For the first time, TV viewers got a glimpse of what it’s like to wheel a race car at 200 mph by riding along from inside of Benny Parsons’ Oldsmobile.

It turned out that Baker’s day was short-lived. Mechanical problems would force him to park his 442.

As the laps wore on, it became evident that the dominant cars belonged to Allison and Yarborough. Their Oldsmobiles were the class of the field.

Drafting in a tight pack prior to the halfway point of the race along with Allison’s older brother, Bobby, the three of them made contact coming off Turn 2 and spun into the muddy, infield grass. All three cars sustained minimal damage but were able to continue.

Their dustup would turn out to be a bit of foreshadowing on what was yet to come that afternoon.

As the race resumed, Yarborough and the Allisons were busy making up lost ground as Waltrip, Earnhardt, the legendary A.J. Foyt and the sport’s winningest driver, Petty, took turns flexing their muscles at the front of the field.

With 20 laps remaining, the once-dominant cars of Yarborough and Donnie Allison had resurfaced at the front of the field.

As if planned in advance, the duo elected to run nose-to-tail, pull away from the pack and settle the score between themselves.

The white flag was unfurled.

And NASCAR, TV executives, sponsors, the media, a sellout crowd and a monster TV audience was on edge waiting to see what would unfold.

As Allison and Yarborough exited Turn 2 and began bouncing off one another as they roared down the backstretch, the words from Squier’s flowed in unison with the action on the track.

After Allison and Yarborough turned the final lap of the most important stock race in the world into their own personal grudge match, their crumpled racers came to rest lifeless just inside of Turn 3.

In the meantime, Petty, Waltrip and Foyt were coming fast after receiving word the leaders had crashed.

The most spectacular finish imaginable had materialized before our very eyes as the beloved Petty nipped Waltrip at the line to capture his sixth checkered flag in the Great American Race.

Moments later, the Allison brothers and Yarborough began swinging fists as the nation watched in disbelief.

Four decades have passed since that milestone moment in NASCAR history.

As NASCAR works to regain its popularity and footing, there’s always hope that the stars will perfectly align and a Massachusetts to Georgia blizzard will appear out of nowhere in the middle of February.

There’s always hope…

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 15 2019
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