The 1978 Season
Yarborough Wins Three Championships; Earnhardt Rising
By Greg Fielden
The face of the American automobile industry was changing in the latter '70s. The OPEC embargo had doubled the price of fuel. The old days were gone and the auto manufacturers knew it. Smaller cars were in the offing, and NASCAR would have to adapt to the new, smaller vehicles.
Driving Used Cars
|A very young but very determined Cale Yarborough early in his racing career. By winning his third Winston Cup Grand National championship in 1978, he would become the only driver, so far, to earn three in a row.|
For four years, 1974-1977, Richard Petty and his reliable '74 Dodge Charger were frequent visitors to Victory Circle. In the 120 Winston Cup Grand National races during the period, Petty won 31 times. He also bagged a pair of championships.
For years, NASCAR had permitted three-year models eligible for the major league tour. For 1977, the sanctioning body extended the eligibility for a year -- which gave the 1974 models a 12-month reprieve. NASCAR had made the move as a cost preventive measure with an eye peeled toward the future when the Winston Cup Series would feature down-sized automobiles.
By midway through the 1977 season, NASCAR accepted the fact that the smaller cars were still three or four years away. The '74 models were aged out of eligibility. Another rule change allowed other General Motors cars to use an engine previously restricted to the Chevrolet nameplate. NASCAR said the Chevrolet GM-LM1, 350 cubic inch engine had also been approved for Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac, along with Chevrolet.
The potent team of Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough, winners of the past two Winston Cup championships, switched to Oldsmobile. So did a lot of other teams, including the Benny Parsons-L.G. DeWitt team, the newly formed Harry Ranier team with Lennie Pond driving, the Hoss Ellington-Donnie Allison unit and Buddy Baker's M.C. Anderson-owned team. Most felt the drooped nose, sloped back 1977 Oldsmobile 442 would be the slickest car, aerodynamically, on the ultra-fast superspeedways. Darrell Waltrip and DiGard Racing were sticking with a 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. "It's a proven product," claimed Waltrip. A.J. Foyt shifted over to a 1977 Buick Regal. Dave Marcis and the Rod Osterlund team had a 1977 Chevrolet Malibu at Daytona.
On the Ford side of the fence, David Pearson and the Wood Brothers were set to go with a 1976 Mercury Cougar. Bill Elliott's budding new team had a 1977 Mercury Montego. Bobby Allison and Bud Moore debuted a new 1978 Ford Thunderbird.
In the Chrysler camp, there seemed to be only one choice -- the big, bulky Dodge Magnum. A number of the Dodge teams had campaigned for the Dodge Diplomat but NASCAR turned thumbs down on the smaller intermediate car. "We'll be racing full size cars in 1978," was NASCAR's statement. Richard Petty and Neil Bonnett, principle Dodge drivers, had difficulty in getting the Magnum to run competitively. "The Dodge Magnum is undriveable at 190 mph," said Petty. Most of the Oldsmobile drivers said much the same thing. "I don't like the new cars," said Donnie Allison. "I can't drive the Olds. It moves around too much."
Cale Yarborough, who won the pole for the Daytona 500 at 187.536 mph on his first lap, did not take his customary second lap. "I couldn't hold my breath any longer," explained Cale. "You wouldn't believe how unstable the car is. I don't know what's going to happen when we get on the track with other cars. I'll have to psyche myself up before the race." Ron Hutcherson and Foyt were second and third fastest in their team Buicks. Petty notched the fourth quickest speed at 185.983 mph. "Not bad for an off-breed car," cracked Petty. Waltrip, who qualified eighth, was the only front runner who was not complaining. "We knew what our Chevy would do," said Waltrip. "We're ahead of the other guys who have to get used to the new cars."
In the Daytona 500, Petty, Waltrip and Pearson were wiped out in an early crash. A tire on Petty's Dodge let go, taking the three leaders out of competition. Less than 10 laps later, Foyt tumbled end-over-end in the tri-oval. Bobby Allison went on to win the 500, breaking a 67 race losing streak.
By the Atlanta 500 on March 19, 1978, NASCAR had made a subtle rule change regarding the rear deck spoilers. Rather than putting a limit of the height of the spoiler -- which had been three inches for all makes of cars -- NASCAR decided that, because different makes of cars varied in width, the rule would be better if the size were limited in area. The new specification was that the total area of the spoiler would not exceed 190 square inches. The narrower General Motors cars were able to increase their spoiler to 3-3/4 inches high, yet still be within the 190 square inch limit.
Petty, NASCAR's all-time race winner with 185 victories, suffered through a miserable early season. He failed to finish four of the first five 1978 races, and was on the lead lap at the finish only once in the first 10 events. "When I'm running super good," said Petty, "there's only a couple of cars I have to worry about. But the way I'm running now, I've got bunches of competition. I might not be as good as ever, but in two years, I can't go from being as good as I ever was to as bad as I am now."
Harry Hyde, crew chief on the Jim Stacy Dodge team, gave up on the Magnum in early May. "We've been running out of a junk yard for three years," claimed Hyde. "Trying to run these (Dodge) engine blocks we get from the junkyard is like taking a mule to the Kentucky Derby." Hyde had an Oldsmobile by the May 14 Winston 500 at Talladega. Bonnett turned in the third fastest qualifying speed but a blown engine knocked him out after just 31 laps. General Motors cars had won seven of the first 11 races in 1978. Chrysler products had not scratched.
The touring pros arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the May 28 World 600 six days before the holiday event. On the day before the opening round of qualifications, Richard Petty's Dodge ran into a roadblock at the NASCAR inspection station. Petty was forced to return to Level Cross, N.C., and get another car. He mentioned that he "gave serious thought to not returning at all, but I have too many commitments to the sponsors and the fans of this sport." Petty qualified on Thursday. In the 600, he was destined to finish a disappointing eighth, two laps off the pace.
Wrong-Way Willy T. Ribbs
Despite Petty's squabble with NASCAR, the headline maker in the days leading up to the World 600 was Willy T. Ribbs. A 23-year-old road racer out of San Jose, Calif., Ribbs had become American's most celebrated African-American driver. With the help of Charlotte Motor Speedway General Manager Humpy Wheeler, Ribbs had been lined up to drive a Ford owned by Will Cronkrite. The car was purchased from Bud Moore and had been in Victory Lane twice at Talladega.
Wheeler arranged two days of private practice session for Ribbs to get oriented with a big Winston Cup Grand National car. The shakedown sessions were scheduled for May 16 and 17. Wheeler made several phone calls to locate Ribbs but all were in vain. Wheeler made an announcement that since Ribbs had missed both practice sessions, the Speedway would refuse his entry. The Ribbs no-show upset Cronkrite as well. "A car was available to Ribbs for two days," said Cronkrite. "I felt it imperative that Ribbs log some times on the track in a big car. His not reporting for practice is contrary to my approach to racing." While absent from his scheduled practice session at CMS, Ribbs did show up on a Charlotte city street driving a car the speedway had borrowed from a local car dealer. It was a one-way street and Willy T apparently was going several different ways. But according to the arresting officer, none of them was the right way.
Car owner Cronkrite selected local Sportsman star Dale Earnhardt to fill the vacancy left by Ribbs. "Dale is an extremely competitive driver," said Cronkrite. "He has the capability of putting a car up front and making it go as fast as it can." Earnhardt, with relief help from fellow Sportsman driver Harry Gant, finished 17th in the World 600 -- 16 laps off the pace. Darrell Waltrip won the race.
A Struggling Petty
By mid-summer, Petty was still struggling with the Dodge Magnum. After 18 races, Petty had finished only six times in the Top 5. When he was running at the finish, he was usually a number of laps off the pace. He was lapped five times in the Winston 500 at Talladega. He was three laps behind at Martinsville, six laps behind at Dover, four laps in arrears at Nashville, and a lap behind at Michigan and the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
In July, he had announced plans to switch to Chevrolet for the remainder of the 1978 season. He purchased a Chevrolet Monte Carlo from privateer Cecil Gordon on July 17. Scheduled debut for the Petty-Chevy combination was the August 26, 1978, Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan. "It just wasn't possible to get the Dodge Magnum consistently competitive with some of the other cars under the current NASCAR rules," said Petty. "We tried everything we could possibly think of. Even though there has been some improvement from the first of the year, everyone else is going quicker, too." NASCAR President Bill France Jr. said the sanctioning body could not rewrite the rulebook to suit one team. "We could not come up with a rule that would be beneficial to Richard and, at the same time, be fair to those campaigning other makes," said France Jr. Petty ran well in the Michigan event, but he crashed the car late in the race.
Darrell and DiGard
Shortly after Petty made the switch from Chrysler to General Motors, news leaked out about Darrell Waltrip's intentions to get out of a five-year contract with the DiGard Racing Team, headed by owner Bill Gardner and brother Jim, who was president of the company. Waltrip felt he was deserving of a better shake. His contract with DiGard was for 50 percent of the race winnings plus some other incentives, but he would share in none of the post-season awards. Waltrip wanted out of his contract and freely admitted he had his eyes on the Ranier Racing Oldsmobile. Lennie Pond had been informed he would not be asked to return to the Harry Ranier-owned team in 1979.
Waltrip had joined DiGard in August of 1975 after the team struggled for nearly three years without a victory. In his eighth start for DiGard, Waltrip won at Richmond. DiGard finally had a winner. In late 1977, DiGard signed a five-year pact with Waltrip -- good through the 1982 season. But Waltrip had become disenchanted with the DiGard management. He wanted out. Gardner said if Waltrip had any intentions of getting out of the contract, it would have to be paid for. And Gardner hinted it would cost a bundle.
"If Ranier is willing to pay my price, fine," said Gardner. "If not, I fully expect Darrell to be driving the DiGard cars next year. I took him as a 28-year-old driver when I could have chosen a super star. We have four and a half years left on our contract and I've given him more money each year, above what it calls for." Waltrip said he hasn't been satisfied with his deal with DiGard for some time. "I haven't been too happy with management," he said. "I have no qualms with the crew or sponsor (Gatorade). It's just that there is something to be desired when it comes to the structures of the company."
On August 27, 1978, Harry Ranier said he intended to replace Pond with Waltrip for the 1979 Winston Cup Grand National season. He was aware of the contractual problems Waltrip was in, but he hadn't actually seen the written contract himself. "As far as we know," said Ranier, "Darrell Waltrip will be our driver next year." On the heels of Ranier's statement, Bill Gardner said Waltrip's contract was no longer for sale. And that he intended to make Waltrip abide by the terms of the contract which he willingly signed a year earlier. But Gardner's statement had little impact on Waltrip. "I am flat out and 100 percent with WIN (Ranier's team) next year and whoever wants to sponsor the best darned team had better get in touch with us," said Waltrip.
DiGard told Waltrip that he was bound to the contract -- and that if necessary, they would take him to court in each and every state in which the Winston Cup Grand National competed. On October 31, the parties had a meeting and the announcement was stunning. "We are pleased to announce that the contractual problem between Darrell Waltrip and DiGard Racing has been resolved," said Gardner. "Darrell will be with DiGard through the 1983 season." Waltrip had signed another long-term contract. "Realistically, we had a binding contract," said Waltrip. "Bill Gardner is sort of hard-headed like me. But amendments were made to the current contract. Gardner didn't have to give me anything. Basically, it's a new contract. I got what I want." According to the guidelines of the new draft, Waltrip would share in the post-season awards won by the DiGard team. Waltrip won six races in 1978 and finished third in the Winston Cup point standings. His total winnings for the year came to $413,907.26 -- including appearance fees, race winnings and post season team awards.
A New Superdriver Coming On
Dale Earnhardt, who had filled in for Willy T. Ribbs in the Will Cronkrite Ford at Charlotte, found himself saddled in the Rod Osterlund Chevrolet for a few late season events. His first try was in the Sportsman 300 at Charlotte in October, where he finished a strong second. He quickly backed that up with a fourth place effort in Atlanta's Dixie 500 in November. Dave Marcis, Osterlund's driver in 1978, said he was leaving the team after the season. Marcis had been unable to get along with Roland Wlodyka, Osterlund's first driver in 1977 who since had taken over the Team Manager duties. With Marcis preparing to leave, Osterlund was faced with filling the seat. Initially, Osterlund said he would choose an experienced driver -- and that he would likely pass over Earnhardt for 1979.
After Earnhardt's impressive Atlanta outing, he said, "All I have to say is I hope they give me this ride next year for the entire season. I think I could be tough. If some people didn't know before, they know now I can drive a race car." That last statement was directed to Osterlund. And contrary to his earlier beliefs, Osterlund named Earnhardt to be his primary driver in 1979.
Cale Yarborough won the championship in 1978 for the third year in a row -- the first driver ever to capture three consecutive Winston Cup Grand National titles [And still the only one in year 2000 - Ed]. Yarborough and his Junior Johnson team won 10 races and a record $623,505.80 in prize money. He finished 474 points ahead of Bobby Allison.
"When I left NASCAR to go to USAC in 1971, I wound up regretting that decision," said Yarborough. "I felt I might have made a mistake by getting out of the Wood Brothers ride, especially as much as they were winning. But if I hadn't left NASCAR," he continued, "I would never have had the opportunity to drive for Junior. And I would have never had the chance to win a championship since the Woods only run some of the races. Actually, it worked out fine for me. Junior has the best team in racing -- make no mistake about that."
Yarborough, who closed out the 1978 season with 59 career wins, said he would like to top one of Richard Petty's milestones before he hung up his helmet. "No one can ever win as many races as he's won because the schedule has been reduced," said Yarborough. "But the way our team is going, I think it's possible to win more championships. That's my goal. I'd like to win more championships than any other driver." Petty had won six NASCAR titles, Yarborough three.