NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1976-1979)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IJanuary 27, 2010

The 1976 NASCAR Winston Cup season was filled with heart-stopping moments, from a last-lap crash between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the Daytona 500 to one between Dale Earnhardt and Dick Brooks at Atlanta International Raceway. The season was filled with triumph as well: Not only did veteran Cale Yarborough win his first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championship, but NASCAR also welcomed female driver Janet Guthrie, who finished 15th at the World 600.

The 1976 Daytona 500 started out with NASCAR disallowing the speeds of the three fastest qualifiers for the Daytona 500, leaving unheralded Ramo Stott on the pole. A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, and Dave Marcis had to re-qualify for the race after NASCAR officials found evidence that Foyt and Waltrip used nitrous oxide (so-called laughing gas) to enhance the performance of the engines and add horsepower.  

Waltrip admitted concealing his bottle of nitrous oxide, but Foyt was furious at NASCAR's decision. He was seen angrily lecturing NASCAR president Bill France Jr. before Bill France Sr. showed up. France Sr. had retired in 1972, but he still was rough and tough "Big Bill" to everyone in the garage area. Few people had the guts to confront Foyt one-on-one, but France Sr. was one of them.  When Foyt and France Sr. walked out from behind closed doors, France had his arm around Foyt's neck and Foyt was saying, "Yes, sir, Mr. France." Dave Marcis, the third-fastest qualifier, also had his lap disqualified, in his case because of an illegal blockage of the radiator.

In one of the most memorable moments in stock car racing, David Pearson crept across the finish line at 20 mph after crashing with Richard Petty on the final lap in a stunning finish to the Daytona 500. Pearson and Petty swapped the lead four times on the final lap and tangled off the fourth turn. This was nothing new between these two, however, as they had finished first and second 57 times prior to this event. Pearson hit the wall off of turn four and spun Petty into the infield grass.  Petty looked like he was going to win the race spinning across the finish line, but his car came to a rest just feet from the checkers.  Meanwhile, Pearson got his Mercury re-fired and motored across the grass, past Petty for the win.

Cale Yarborough broke out of a close points race with Benny Parsons at midseason to score his first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championship. Yarborough won nine races and finished 195 points in front of runner-up Richard Petty. Yarborough took the points lead for keeps with a 26th-place finish at Talladega in August. Parsons finished 39th after his engine let go in the early laps. Petty passed Parsons in the points race in September and held on for the runner-up spot.

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By 1977, the NASCAR Winston Cup organization was pulling itself out of the shackles of the post-factory days. Corporate sponsors were jumping on the bandwagon, new team owners found the NASCAR scene appealing, and a few of the surviving independent teams had beefed up their operations. The starting fields were full again, the grandstands were close to capacity, competition was closer, and television ratings were climbing steadily.

1977 saw Janet Guthrie net her best NASCAR Winston Cup finish at the Bristol Volunteer 400 by finishing sixth. This was also the year that Darrell Waltrip earned his famous nickname, "Jaws", after  Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and D.K. Ulrich were involved in a 227th-lap crash at the Southern 500 at Darlington. In response to Ulrich's inquiry as to what happened, Yarborough says, "That Jaws ran into you."  The name stuck.

Cale Yarborough was running at the finish in all 30 NASCAR Winston Cup races as he dominated the 1977 season to wrap up his second consecutive title. Yarborough won nine races in 30 starts and finished 386 points ahead of runner-up Richard Petty. Petty captured the points lead briefly at midseason, taking first place after the July 31 race at Pocono, but a runner-up finish the following week at Talladega lifted Yarborough atop the standings again, a lead that he never relinquished.

The 1978 NASCAR Winston Cup season was filled with hotly contested races and surprise upset victories. In the Talladega 500 alone, there were 67 lead changes before Lennie Pond drove his Oldsmobile around Benny Parsons with five laps to go and scored his lone NASCAR Winston Cup career victory by a narrow margin. And, Oldsmobile got its first win since 1959, when Cale Yarborough piloted his car to a close decision over Benny Parsons to win the Winston Western 500 on the road course at Riverside International Raceway.

Race teams were not immune from infractions and suspensions in the '70s either, as car owner Harold Miller and driver Keith Davis were suspended for 12 weeks when NASCAR officials discovered an illegal bottle of nitrous oxide in the car in prerace inspections. 

1978 also marked the first appearance of Dale Earnhardt after Willy T. Ribbs, America's leading African-American race driver, failed to appear for two special practice sessions in preparation for the upcoming World 600 at Charlotte. Team owner Will Cronkrite, irked with Ribbs' absence, replaced him with relatively unknown short-track racer, Dale Earnhardt.

More controversy flared at Atlanta International Raceway as Donnie Allison was declared the winner of the Dixie 500 after the crowd of 40,000 thought Richard Petty had nipped Dave Marcis in a race to the finish. However, NASCAR scorers failed to notice that Allison had passed both Petty and Marcis with three laps remaining. Rookie Dale Earnhardt finished fourth in his first start with the Rod Osterlund team.

Cale Yarborough motored to his record-setting third consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup championship with another season-long sparkling effort. Yarborough's Junior Johnson team won 10 races and finished a comfortable 474 points ahead of runner-up Bobby Allison. Yarborough clinched the 1978 title at Rockingham in October.  Yarborough's record of three consecutive champions would go unbroken and untied until Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive title in 2008.

The 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup season was one of record speeds and legendary brawls. At the Daytona 500 alone, thanks to a newly-resurfaced track, Buddy Baker reached a record qualifying speed of 196.049 mph to top Cale Yarborough's nine-year-old record of 194.015.

The race itself didn't disappoint, either.  The 21st annual Daytona 500 was spectacular from start to finish, with thrilling action and many lead changes. During the final lap, leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison (who had been jostling for the lead) slid together into the concrete wall, clearing the way for Richard Petty to take the win. Immediately, Yarborough and Allison began to fight on the field, and the whole fracas was televised live on CBS, which only served to increase ticket sales.

Outstanding rookie driver Dale Earnhardt saw his share of ups and downs in the '79 season. On the "up" side, he grabbed his first career NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National victory in Bristol's Southeastern 500 by scooting around Darrell Waltrip with 27 laps to go.  On the "down" side, he fractured both collar bones in a hard crash on the 99th lap of a crash-marred Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono International Raceway.  David Pearson substituted for Earnhardt and wound up winning his third Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Richard Petty won an unprecedented seventh NASCAR Winston Cup championship as he posted a furious rally late in the 1979 season. Petty trailed Darrell Waltrip by 187 points with just seven races to go. From that point on, Petty never finished lower than sixth. 

Waltrip led the points chase most of the season, assuming command in May and building a healthy lead until his big advantage began to slip away. The lead in the standings changed in each of the last four races. Waltrip led after the 28th race at North Wilkesboro in October. Petty won at Rockingham the following week and took an eight-point lead. Waltrip finished one spot ahead of Petty at Atlanta and carried a two-point lead into the season finale at Ontario Motor Speedway in California.

In the final race, Waltrip spun out while trying to avoid another spinning car and was trapped a lap behind. Unable to make up the lost lap, Waltrip finished eighth, while Petty came home fifth and won the title by 11 points.  In spite of missing four races due to his injury, Earnhardt still managed a remarkable seventh place finish in the final standings.