CP MOTORSPORTS: TOM HIGGINS: WHEN DALE EARNHARDT TOOK THE 1980 TITLE
(First of a two-part series on Dale Earnhardt winning NASCAR’s 1980 Cup Series championship and the amusing 12 hours that followed).
Dramatic NASCAR finales of yore flash to mind as the 2015 season came to a conclusion at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend.
Ranking extremely high among those of the past is the 1980 battle between the tough veteran driver Cale Yarborough and a brash relative newcomer, Dale Earnhardt.
Their tussle for the title took place at Ontario Motor Speedway, a magnificent California track east of Los Angeles with a rectangular 2 ½-mile layout patterned after Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race was the L.A. Times 500, but it was destined to become known as the “Cale and Dale Show.”
Earnhardt, in only his second season in NASCAR’s top series after becoming rookie of the year in 1979, led Yarborough by 29 points entering the last of the year’s 31 races. Yarborough was trying for a fourth straight title with a team owned and led by Junior Johnson. When Yarborough won the pole position at 155.549 mph and Earnhardt qualified on the front row alongside him, one of my editors at the Charlotte Observer screamed at me as I filed my stories, “Don’t tell me this stuff ain’t fixed!”
“Have you considered what a master conspiracy that would have to be, involving all those other drivers and their teams?” I asked.
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
As Yarborough swapped the lead with others, Earnhardt trailed 10 or so car-lengths behind.
Then came Dale’s first “turnover,” or fumble, causing great concern among team owner Rod Osterlund and Earnhardt’s 18-year-old crew chief, Doug Richert. Earnhardt pitted too early on the 71st lap of the race’s 200 and fell a lap behind.
During a caution period on Lap 146, Earnhardt made up the deficit in a charge to the flag, barely edging leader Yarborough at the line in a controversial call by NASCAR officials. Johnson and Yarborough dispute that decision to this day. “It wasn’t even close!” says Junior.
A NASCAR media official openly cheered for Earnhardt in the press box. After making up the lap, Earnhardt now was within the margin of error in terms of points.
But he was to fumble again – spectacularly.
While pitting for a final time on the 183rd lap there was miscommunication between driver and crew. The call was for fuel only, but some crewmen began changing the right-side tires.
Earnhardt sped away, his car essentially falling off the jack. Only two of the lug nuts on the right rear were secure. Earnhardt was black-flagged and very nearly lost a lap again.
“My heart almost stopped,” Earnhardt conceded later.
Given a reprieve, Earnhardt managed to finish fifth to Yarborough’s third as Benny Parsons won the Times 500 for the second straight year, his victory overshadowed again by the championship chase. Parsons also won in 1979 as Petty edged Darrell Waltrip for a final tile.
The margin for Earnhardt was 19 points, a small advantage under the scoring system in effect at time time.
“We were drawing to an inside straight, I guess, in trying to win the championship four years in a row,” said a nevertheless disappointed Yarborough.
From the moments of his fumbling, bumbling despair, Earnhardt reverted to his cocky self immediately after the race.
“I ain’t Dale anymore,” he told friends. “Call me Champ!”
Then, Dale invited two members of the media, Motor Racing Network anchor Barney Hall and me, to join him and his brothers for a flight over to Las Vegas to celebrate.
The adventure was to continue…
(Next week: A night in “Sin City” with Dale Earnhardt).