WAID’S WORLD: A Look Back To 1979 – The Year Petty Won His Last Championship
That Jimmie Johnson won his seventh career NASCAR Sprint Cup title and joins Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as the drivers with the most championships in the sanctioning body’s history is, indeed, an accomplishment which establishes the California driver as one of the best of all time.
He is forever linked to two NASCAR icons and – think of this – he has the opportunity to surpass them both.
However, that is in the future. Let’s look to the past. Petty won his seventh and last title in 1979, a tumultuous and dramatic season that has passed into NASCAR lore.
— It was in 1979 that NASCAR plowed its way into the nation’s consciousness through the magic of television. The Daytona 500 was televised live by CBS.
As fate would have it a huge snowstorm hit the Northeast and, unable to leave their homes, many decided to tune in and see what NASCAR was all about.
In an exciting and completely unexpected finish, Petty sped past the wrecked cars of leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison to win at Daytona yet again.
That wasn’t the end of it. “And there’s a fight in the third turn!” CBS broadcaster Ken Squier yelled. Sure enough, Yarborough and the Allison brothers – Bobby joined the fray – were mixing it up in the infield, arms and legs flailing.
Folks who watched on TV later said they were slack-jawed. They had never seen anything like that – and said they wanted to see more. NASCAR’s popularity grew accordingly.
Had Petty listened to his doctors he would have never entered the race. During the offseason about 40 percent of his stomach had been removed due to ulcers. He was urged not to compete until declared fully healed.
He ignored his doctors. And that he did was the first step toward what was then a record-setting championship.
— In 1979, a skinny kid from Kannapolis, N.C., finally landed a quality ride with Rod Osterlund’s team.
Earnhardt would quickly become a sensation. He won the spring race at Bristol in a sport where rookies seldom win.
He was dynamic on the track. Even though young he gave no quarter and asked for none. He said that was the way his father Ralph, a champion on the short tracks, did it.
He would go on to become the Rookie of the Year despite the fact he broke both his collarbones in a crash at Pocono in July and missed four races.
Osterlund had to find a replacement driver, particularly for the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.
Enter David Pearson.
— In 1979, Pearson and the Wood Brothers team had already established themselves as one of NASCAR’s best all-time unions. Since 1972 they had won 44 races running limited schedules on mostly superspeedways.
But at Darlington’s Rebel 500 in the spring of that year, Pearson sped down pit road with two left-side wheels unattached. They came off and the team’s Mercury collapsed at the pit exit.
It was one of the most unusual events in NASCAR history. For Pearson it was also a career change.
Soon afterward the Woods announced that they and Pearson would split. It was said the pit road incident had nothing to do with it. Few believed it. Pearson was without a ride.
Osterlund hired Pearson to replace Earnhardt. Pearson finished second at Talladega, fourth at Michigan and seventh at Bristol. Then came Darlington’s Southern 500 on Labor Day.
Pearson won the race. It was his 10th at Darlington and the 104th of his career.
One driver who could have beaten him yet lost all chance when he spun out two times was Darrell Waltrip. He would figure prominently in the championship battle.
— In 1979, Waltrip signed a five-year deal with DiGard Racing Co., something he would later deeply regret.
After the Darlington disappointment Waltrip held a 162-point lead over Petty, which grew to 187 points after Richmond, the 24th race of the year.
But over the course of the next four races Petty cut 170 points off Waltrip’s lead and then, after the fall race at Rockingham, Petty took an eight-point lead. It was the first time he had been atop the point standings all season.
There were two races to go.
Waltrip was fourth at the next race, in Atlanta, and Petty was sixth. Waltrip held a two-point lead going into the final event of the season at Ontario, Calif. NASCAR had never seen the likes of it.
Waltrip ran a conservative setup at the California track to improve reliability. Petty said he came to win – and had his car prepared to do just that.
Waltrip looped his car to avoid a wreck, pitted and went a lap down. He finished seventh and earned 147 points. Petty, meanwhile, finished fifth and was credited with 160 points.
Petty won the championship by 11 points – at the time the closest finish in NASCAR history.
— At the end of 1979 no one knew Petty’s title would be the last of his career even though he raced through 1992.
No one knew that Earnhardt would win the championship in 1980, one season after his rookie title. And certainly no on knew he would go on to win six more.
No one knew that Waltrip would buy his way out of his DiGard contract to join Junior Johnson in 1980. Waltrip would win three championships with Johnson.
No one knew Pearson would win once in 1980 thus end his career with 105 victories, second all-time only to Petty.
And today, no one knows if Johnson will make history with an eighth championship.
We’ll have to wait and see.
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