The 1980 Season
Dale and Darrell -- Happy and Unhappy
By Greg Fielden
|Bobby Allison (L) and Dale Earnhardt (R) share some pre-race tips. In 1979 Earnhardt became the first (so far) to win back-to-back a Rookie of the Year and a Grand National championship.|
Four days after the 1980 NASCAR season got underway at Riverside, Calif., Dale Earnhardt and car owner Rod Osterlund agreed to a five year pact with a three year option -- which could possibly run through the 1986 season. Earnhardt, the 27-year-old sensation from Kannapolis, had come from the dirt tracks of North Carolina to the asphalt of big league racing virtually overnight and had become one of the top-rated drivers on the Winston Cup circuit. Osterlund, recognizing Earnhardt's talents, wanted to seal their relationship for a long run.
Earnhardt got a lucrative package. "We're building a team, and I think we'll reach 100 percent this year," said Earnhardt. "When the five years are up, we'll probably sign another five year contract."
The only other driver under a similar pact was Darrell Waltrip, under contract to the DiGard team through 1983. But unlike Earnhardt, Waltrip didn't find the legal restraints comfortable. He freely admitted he didn't care for the DiGard management. Waltrip had tried to get out of his contract in late 1978 and move over to the Harry Ranier team. Ironically, Waltrip and DiGard came to terms with an extension of his contract.
The ill feelings between Waltrip and the Gardner brothers, Bill and Jim, had been put on the back burner during the 1979 season. Waltrip had been locked in a tight battle for the Winston Cup championship, losing to Richard Petty by only 11 points. Crew chief Buddy Parrott had been fired two days after the 1979 season finale at Ontario, becoming the scapegoat for losing the title chase. However, Parrott was re-hired on January 2, 1980. Everything seemed back in order until Daytona's Speedweeks rolled around.
The DiGard team entered two cars in the 1980 Daytona 500 -- one for Waltrip and another for noted road racer Don Whittington, who seemed to have an endless supply of large sums of money at his disposal. Whittington struck a deal with DiGard to provide a second car for him at many of the 1980 Winston Cup Grand National events.
Waltrip loudly objected. "I've always said I didn't think a two car operation would be successful," said Waltrip. "I don't think it would be fair to either driver. I'm not happy with it but there is nothing I can do. I'm just a lonely soldier doing my duty." Whittington failed to earn a starting berth in the Daytona 500 -- and he eventually formed his own team later in the year.
Waltrip only went 20 laps in the Daytona 500 before engine problems sent him to an early shower. "All I can say is that this team isn't a bit better than when I came here in 1975," he remarked. Things were going just dandy for Dale Earnhardt, though. He won the second annual Busch Clash for pole winners -- beating Waltrip in the final lap. He also finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and took the lead in the Winston Cup point standings.
In the Atlanta 500 on March 16, Earnhardt bagged his first superspeedway win, outrunning Rusty Wallace, who was driving in his first Winston Cup Grand National event. Wallace had hooked up with car owner Roger Penske, who was fielding his first team in NASCAR since pulling out after the 1977 season. Earnhardt capped his Atlanta win with a triumph at Bristol the following week to move into an 85-point lead over Bobby Allison in the Winston Cup point standings. Cale Yarborough was in fifth place, 230 points behind Earnhardt.
Crew Chief Unrest
At the Charlotte World 600, 13th of 31 races on the 1980 schedule, there were reports of problems within the Osterlund organization. Jake Elder, the highly regarded crew chief, said he had become disenchanted with Team Manager Roland Wlodyka. The day after the 600, Elder quit, leaving the point leader without a crew chief. He would then return to the DiGard team -- reportedly at the request of Waltrip. Parrott had been canned by DiGard again. "I'd die before I ever turned another wrench on a Darrell Waltrip car," Parrott said in a parting shot. On June 17, Doug Richert, who three days earlier had turned 20, became crew chief for Earnhardt for the remainder of the year. When Richert was appointed, Earnhardt held a slim 13 point margin over Richard Petty, who was gunning for a record eighth Winston Cup title.
On July 27, a field of 40 cars were lined up at Pocono International Raceway for the Coca-Cola 500. For Earnhardt, it was a return to the site of his worst racing crash. In the 1979 event at the triangular race course, Earnhardt had clobbered the wall in the second turn and broke both collarbones. He missed four races while recuperating.
Richard Petty had qualified third and made a strong bid in the early going. He was leading the field in the 56th lap when the right-front tire blew on his Chevrolet. The car struck the steel boilerplate wall, sailing high into the air. The mangled remains came down right side up with Petty motionless in the car. He was transported to the hospital where he was diagnosed as suffering from a "severely sprained neck." Petty later said his neck was broken.
Earnhardt finished fourth and increased his point lead to 144 points over Petty. Yarborough was third, 155 behind Earnhardt. Petty kept the extent of his Pocono injuries under wraps so that he could continue racing. Fitted with a neck brace, Petty started the Talladega 500 five days after he got out of the hospital. "It's harder to put on my helmet than it is to drive the car," said Petty. He drove the car for one lap and turned the wheel over to Joe Millikan. Later, the car fell out with a blown engine. Yarborough moved up to second in the Winston Cup standings, 155 points behind Earnhardt. Petty and Waltrip were ranked third and fourth.
Waltrip Gets a Non-DiGard Ride
Two weeks after Talladega, the tour went to Michigan. Waltrip's DiGard Chevrolet failed to earn a starting spot. He made attempts in both qualifying sessions, but the engine blew each time before he completed a lap. A provisional spot was not available for the DiGard team since Waltrip had been unable to complete a lap and log an official qualifying time. The evening before the 400-miler, Waltrip and rookie car owner Joel Halpern of Tarrytown, N.Y., struck a deal. Waltrip would take the seat in the Chevrolet which Chuck Bown had qualified 11th. Waltrip nearly won the race. He had it in the bag until a caution flag 10 laps from the finish ruined his runaway bid. He eventually finished fourth.
During race week at Michigan, Waltrip had said he was "fed up" with the DiGard management, and that he was "no longer inspired." He said he wanted out of the DiGard contract once and for all. Bill Gardner, DiGard president, reminded Waltrip that he was under contract and they would go to court, if necessary, to keep him put.
Yarborough Leaves Johnson
On Sept. 9, Yarborough made an announcement that would shake the Stock car racing world. After eight years with Junior Johnson, Cale was skipping out. He was walking away from the team which had helped him with three straight Winston Cup championships and over 50 victories. Yarborough said he no longer wanted to chase championship points. He preferred to run a limited schedule and car owner M.C. Anderson, who was in his fifth year, said that was ideal for him. Yarborough agreed to a three year contract with Anderson.
A week later, Bobby Allison announced he would be leaving the Bud Moore Ford ride to go with Harry Ranier. Buddy Baker, who had driven Ranier cars to four superspeedway wins in a year and a half -- including the 1980 Daytona 500, was out of a ride. That left the Johnson and Moore rides open. And it was no secret that Waltrip wanted the Johnson seat. On Oct. 2, three days before the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Waltrip was again on the warpath. "If I don't get away from these Gardners," he told a gathering of news reporters, "they are going to drag me down the tubes with them."
Bill Gardner arrived the next day -- with Waltrip's contract in hand. He also announced that he was looking for someone to drive the DiGard car in 1981. "Darrell is under contract to DiGard," said Bill Gardner. "We will do whatever it takes to protect our rights under this contract. We are also looking for a driver for the No. 88 car next year. And Darrell just might get whatever is left." Gardner was dealing some pretty heavy cards. He said that he just might put Waltrip in a junker car while the "new" driver would get the primary No. 88 Gatorade-sponsored car.
"It shows you what kind of people they are when they'll take a chance to destroy a sponsor," said Waltrip. "Gatorade is the most important factor we have to consider. DiGard has a good team. They will win races without me. It just shows you how little they think of me."
Gardner had his attorneys send a letter to Junior Johnson and Bud Moore advising them to lay off of their driver. "Not only will I hold Darrell responsible," said Gardner, "but I'll hold anybody else responsible for breaking that contract. We signed Darrell to a long-term contract. It's easier to sell him and the team to a sponsor. A sponsor doesn't want a new driver in his car every year. It's a game of chess," Gardner added, "and I guess it's Darrell's move."
Johnson had his attorney return a letter to Gardner telling him to refrain from trying to hire his people out from under him. "They tried to hire three of my people earlier in the year," said Johnson. "It seems to me that they have been troublemakers ever since they got into the sport."
Although the Waltrip-DiGard squabble got the headlines throughout the Charlotte race week, Earnhardt provided a good portion of ink. He won the National 500 in a spirited run and extended his point lead to 115 over Yarborough. There were only three races left and Earnhardt appeared a shoo-in to be the first man to ever win the Rookie of the Year award one year, then the Winston Cup championship the following season.
Darrell Gets Free -- But Pays Alimony
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 28 and 29, Waltrip and Gardner met and discussed the situation at length. A few minutes after 2 p.m. Wednesday, Waltrip announced that he was "a free man. I'm committed to running the last two races for them (DiGard), but after that I'm free. Now if only the hostages in Iran will be set free, my world will be in good shape."
Waltrip bought himself out of his contract with DiGard. "I think 90 percent of the people in the garage area never thought I would get out of it," he said. The financial settlement was undisclosed, but it was a substantial amount. Perhaps anywhere between $350,000 and $500,000. Ricky Rudd was hired by DiGard. They signed a contract for Rudd to drive in 1981 with DiGard holding the options on another four years.
A few days later, Waltrip signed a three-year pact with Junior Johnson and new sponsor Mountain Dew. Although Waltrip said he would never sign another long-term pact, Johnson said "It's the coming trend, and I want to know whose going to drive my cars for the next three years. So would our sponsor." Waltrip said it was a "flexible contract that both parties can live with. It's loosely written but it's legally binding." Waltrip added that driving for Johnson was "a dream come true. When I was a little feller and started following races in the papers and on the radio, Junior was still driving. He was my hero."
Dale Becomes One Tough Customer
In the Atlanta Journal 500, Yarborough won a close battle with Neil Bonnett to gain his sixth win of the year. Earnhardt finished third, a lap behind. In the closing laps, Earnhardt was trying to get back into the lead lap. For the final three laps, Cale and Dale ran side-by-side. Bonnett finished a couple of seconds behind. Earnhardt's late-race tactics angered Yarborough. "That's the worst piece of driving I've ever seen in my career as a race driver," charged Cale. "I really believe Earnhardt would rather have taken us both out of the race than to see me win. I plan to speak to him about it just as soon as I see him," said Cale.
Earnhardt didn't think the finish was anything to get upset about. "I wasn't sure I wasn't on the same lap," he reasoned. "I was trying to win the race -- just like he was. I wasn't going to wallow on him or anything. I never touched him." Yarborough closed to within 29 points going into the season finale at Ontario, Calif.
The 500-miler at Ontario was the final NASCAR event at the magnificent 2.5-mile rectangular facility patterned after Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track had opened in 1970, built at a reported cost of $26 million -- $6 million over budget -- by a quasi-public authority of the City of Ontario. Construction cost was raised through a public bond issue that the city endorsed. The 2.5-mile track was leased to private operators.
The first event was a 500-mile USAC Indy Car event -- and it drew an overflow crowd of 180,223. But attendance figures dropped off sharply after that and the operators were unable to pay the $2 million annual rent and withdrew. The track had been leased by an assortment of promoters since then -- including several former Indy Car drivers -- but dwindling gate receipts forced the city and financial institutions to resolve it by foreclosure.
Chevron, the marketing division of Standard Oil of California, was the high bidder at $43 million. Chevron officials said they would tear the speedway down. On this day, with the Winston Cup Grand National Championship at stake, only 15,000 spectators showed up. Yarborough was on the pole and Earnhardt started second. Both took the lead briefly in the early going. But Earnhardt fell a lap off the pace in the 71st lap when he pitted too early during a yellow flag. He had dropped to ninth place as Yarborough was battling for the lead. The difference was more than enough to give Yarborough his fourth championship.
But Earnhardt came roaring back. With just over 125 miles to go, he got around leader Yarborough. When the caution came out on lap 146, Dale won the race back to the start-finish line and got back in the lead lap. Benny Parsons won the race with Yarborough third and Earnhardt fifth. Dale won the championship by 19 points. He had led the Winston Cup standings after every race -- except the first one. At times, he held a commanding lead -- as much as 150 points. His lead dwindled to as few as 13 at one point. Each time a veteran team would make a run for the lead, the Osterlund squad with its rookie crew chief and sophomore driver, met the challenge. As the season drew to a close, Wrangler Jeans had hopped on board as major sponsor.
The 1980 Winston Cup Grand National season was the last year in which full-size cars were permitted by sanctioning NASCAR. Effective in 1981, the cars would be limited to 110-inch wheelbase, down from 115 inches.