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AP Was There: Petty wins fight-marred 1979 Daytona 500

February 16, 2019
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FILE - In this Feb. 18, 1979, file photo, 41 cars roll around the wet Daytona International Speedway track under a caution flag as the Daytona 500 auto race gets under way in Daytona Beach, Fla. The 1979 race was instrumental in broadening NASCAR's southern roots. Forty years later, it still resonates as one of the most important days in NASCAR history. (AP Photo, File)
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FILE - In this Feb. 18, 1979, file photo, 41 cars roll around the wet Daytona International Speedway track under a caution flag as the Daytona 500 auto race gets under way in Daytona Beach, Fla. The 1979 race was instrumental in broadening NASCAR's southern roots. Forty years later, it still resonates as one of the most important days in NASCAR history. (AP Photo, File)

EDITOR’S NOTE __ Having grown up in Ohio, I had never seen a NASCAR race in person until the weekend of racing that climaxed with the Feb. 18, 1979, Daytona 500.

That’s when, as an Associated Press sports writer newly based in Florida, I covered what would be one of the most memorable Daytona 500 races of all time. It ended chaotically, with a last-lap crash followed by a brawl that allowed the great Richard Petty to get a surprise victory.

The AP is republishing my race story as part of the run-up to this Sunday’s 500, as it appeared in the Beaumont (Texas) Journal the day after the race.

—Dan Sewell, AP Cincinnati correspondent.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — As he headed into the final lap of the Daytona 500, slumping Richard Petty was thinking about third place, something of a morale victory for the aging stock car racing king.

But the fiery tempers of Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison ignited into a battle that took both off the track — and cleared the way for Petty to roar to his sixth victory in the $600,000 classic Sunday.

It was Petty’s first victory since the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway in July 1977. It wasn’t one that he expected.

“When I saw the yellow flag, I called back on the radio to ask crew chief Dale Inman who was in the wreck,” Petty said.

He heard brother Maurice Petty yelling, “Go, go, go!”

“I came around turn three and saw No. 1 (Allison) and No. 11 (Yarborough) sitting on the infield and here I am leading the race,” Petty said.

As Yaborough and Allison, who banged into each other in their battle for first place and smashed themselves out of the race, began fighting, Petty held off second-place finisher Darrell Waltrip and third place A.J. Foyt for a memorable — if not entirely satisfying — victory.

“I couldn’t have picked a better ace to win. We’ve won some races down here because we had the best car and I’ve lucked into some. And I’ve had luck go against me when I’ve had the best car. I guess it all equalizes out,” Petty said.

“If I’d been this lucky the last year and a half, I’d have won about two-thirds of them,” he said.

Petty, advised by his doctor to lay off racing for three months after a December ulcer operation, raised his career winnings to $3,180,596 with the $73,500 first-place price.

Petty began 13th after a mediocre week here, but as the cars circled the damp track under a caution flag for the first 15 laps, his Oldsmobile’s performance gave him growing confidence.

“Sometimes you just get these real good feelings. It seemed to be running good. I didn’t necessarily think we would win, but if we’d finished third it would be better than some of the days we’d been having,” he said.

Pole winner and favorite Buddy Baker was dogged by engine problems from the beginning, and finally had to stop after 38 laps. The early departure of Baker, who qualified at 196.049 mph, probably helped the other drivers keep from overtaxing their engines.

“That gave us all a little break,” Petty said. “We didn’t have to run as quick.”

Baker, winless in the Daytona 500 despite leading 11 of the last 12, was distraught at his latest turn of luck.

“I ain’t believing that. If there was ever a perfect race car, that was it. That just beats all I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Petty won with an average speed of 143.977 mph. Seven caution flags totaling 57 laps slowed the race. Defending champion David Pearson was among five drivers forced out on the 53rd lap after a mass tangle-up on the fourth turn.

The periodic caution flags resulted in long drafts that didn’t finally break up until the last 45 miles. Waltrip pulled into the lead, then made the last of is 18 pit stops on the 175th lap, setting up the Allison-Yarborough battle.

When their last-lap dogfight and fistfight were finished, the two exchanged charges.

Yaborough, who said that Donnie’s brother, Bobby Allison, slowed down to block him, claimed Donnie then knocked him into the grass.

“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in racing. I had the race won, no ifs, ands or buts,” Yarborough fumed.

Both Allisons denied the plot described by Yarborough. Donnie said Yaborough came up off the grass to knock him into the wall.

Donnie Allison finished fourth, Yarborough was fifth and rookie Tighe Scott, who overshot his pit on the last stop, wound up sixth.

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The AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.

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