Cale Yarborough and winning went hand in hand. We were reminded of that Sunday, as Jimmie Johnson tied the three-time champion for 83 victories at NASCAR’s highest levels. While fans trumpet the achievements of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, it is too easy to forget what drivers like Yarborough accomplished.
Cale Yarborough was Jimmie Johnson before there was a Jimmie Johnson. He was the first to win three championships in a row in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The South Carolinian won four Daytona 500s, and five Southern 500s. Among drivers with 500 starts, Cale Yarborough is third in winning percentage at 14.82 percent. He also set a record by winning 14 pole awards in one season.
In the 1979 Daytona 500, Cale Yarborough really helped put the series on the national map. On a day where the east coast was sequestered with bad weather, newer audiences were tuned in to the Great American Race. That day, Yarborough and Donnie Allison were beating fenders, and let’s just say things got a little out of control. While the combatants took each other out, Richard Petty cruised to victory. The spectacle shown here put the passion of racing on display. All the participants look back upon it with a laugh now. Yarborough- who was once an amateur boxer- shows us why it’s a good thing he discovered racing.
While Johnson and Yarborough have had prolific careers, there are differences. Besides rattling sabers with the competition, Cale Yarborough enjoyed a higher degree of popularity. In the 60s, he was the second NASCAR driver (after Curtis Turner) to adorn the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1967, he also won the series Most Popular Driver award. Some may not know it, but it was Yarborough who gave Darrell Waltrip the nickname “Jaws,” once putting a rubber shark in DW’s car.
His beaming smile was winsome, and his hard-charging style won fans as well. He was also a tough guy. Besides having played semi-pro football and boxing, Cale Yarborough showed his toughness in this nasty spill in the old days of Darlington.
Though not an instant classic, Sunday’s race was interesting. It was also a great show of class by the winner to pay homage to a NASCAR legend too easy to overlook.
Before there was Jimmie Johnson, there was Cale Yarborough. With his inspiration, there may have been no Johnson without Yarborough.