Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram ALL HAIL CALE Now that Jimmie Johnson has clinched this year's Sprint Cup, the question looms. Was it tougher to win three straight championships in the current era of the Chase versus the old points ...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
ALL HAIL CALE
Now that Jimmie Johnson has clinched this year's Sprint Cup, the question looms. Was it tougher to win three straight championships in the current era of the Chase versus the old points system?
It seems like long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away that I once toiled in the sports department at a mid-size newspaper in central North Carolina. Although cotton's day had faded, tobacco was still king along with a guy who lived on the edge of our readership district named Richard Petty. But the year I was hired, 1976, an upstart from South Carolina was making his bid to become the new ruler of stock car racing's Grand National thunder.
This would have been a decade after Atlanta newspaperman Bill Robinson had dubbed Petty as "King Richard the Hemi-Hearted." Robinson's phrase was a play on the name of King Richard the Lion-Hearted, a character featured in a popular movie in the 1960's, as well as a play on the success of Dodge's hemi engines at Daytona. Above all, the handle of "The King" fit Petty's enormous success and popularity at a time when NASCAR racing was full of romance, swagger and danger.
After he became King, it seemed everybody was jousting with Petty to be number one in a sport where second was the first loser. The fact NASCAR was still a subculture among mainstream sports only added to the family feud-like passion. Bobby Allison and Petty fought with fists even away from the track while David Pearson and Petty engaged in duels at Daytona decided by crashes and occasionally some high-speed subterfuge.
Cale Yarborough was the first driver who actually had the last word when it came to taking command of NASCAR's realm from Petty. Fans argued throughout the 1970's on the question of who was best -- Allison, Pearson, Yarborough or Petty? Many of the debates took place over CB radios and most were based on a manufacturer preference. Then Yarborough and team owner Junior Johnson established a dynasty equal to that of Stengel's Yankees or Auerbach's Celtics and certainly a match for Petty Enterprises.
After runner-up finishes in 1973 and 1974, the duo of Yarborough and Johnson scored what was then known as the Winston Cup championship in 1976. It was the first of three straight titles that included 28 victories in 90 races, 13 poles and only 7 DNF's. During the skein, Petty, who won the Cup in 1974 and 1975, finished second in the points twice and in 1978 Allison was the runner-up.
Yarborough didn't just win the title and the most races in his Chevy and Olds entries. He spanked just about everybody. Pearson recorded 10 wins for the Wood Brothers during the 1976 season while running a schedule limited to superspeedways. But his victories dwindled to a total of six over the next two seasons.
It wasn't just about victory lane. In the points race, Yarborough averaged a margin of 351 points over his nearest rival during the course of those three 30-race seasons.
Johnson and Yarborough had two aces up their sleeve. First, they had convinced General Motors to upgrade the caliber of cylinder heads for their Chevy V-8's after 14 DNF's -- many due to engine problems -- in 1975. Not one to rely entirely on others, Johnson also surprised everybody in the garage by introducing mid-race engine changes. With no worries about blowing up his engines, Yarborough's only mission was getting to the front and staying there, which he did on almost a weekly basis. If he blew an engine, the mid-race changes would usually save him from a huge set-back in the points.
Another plus was Johnson's mastery of car set-up and body fabrication on the short tracks (at a time when NASCAR inspectors and their templates left a lot of leeway). Yarborough could be counted on to win regularly at Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol, North Wilkesboro and Nashville. In his first title season, seven of Yarborough's nine victories came on the bullrings. In all, he scored 18 of his victories on short tracks during his championship reign. But he also won the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 at Darlington during this stretch.
So was it easier to win three straight back in the late 1970's? Well, the top teams had fewer than 20 full-time employees, usually, and the quality of cars put on the track were rudimentary at best. They had firewalls so leaky that most drivers finished the 500-mile or 500-lap races which dominated the schedule with low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning. A foot burned on hot floorboards was a minor problem. Drivers great and small got killed regularly in these tube-frame chariots.
The competition itself boiled down to six or seven top drivers and teams -- not much different from the present. Mid-race disputes that led to contact and counter attacks were standard fare, especially on the short tracks, at narrow venues like Darlington or on the slippery slopes of Rockingham. For the superspeedways, engine builders threw in the maximum horsepower and car builders took out as much drag as possible, leaving the drivers to hold on in the corners. There were no spotters and no power steering for the 115-inch wheelbase behemoths as drivers four-wheel drifted through the high banks on bias ply tires.
This is not to say the current cars are like something out of a Disney theme park. It's not easy driving cars in 36 races without springs in the front and too much weight at the top on brick-like radial tires. That's the assignment with the current Cars of Tomorrow. The COT's are significantly safer, but that's part of the reason why they're top heavy, a devilish handling issue for some drivers.
One might suggest the idea of concentrating on the 10 short track races as a route to the championship back in the 1970's is no different than having a strong run on the last 10 races on the schedule, which now comprise the Chase for the Championship.
Both then and now, you had to beat a handful of highly motivated, talented drivers and their team owners. In the 1970's that included Petty (who won his seventh title in 1979 to end Yarborough's streak), Allison, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip.
This year, after a slow start to the season due to chassis set-up problems, Johnson primarily had to beat Carl Edwards and a faltering Kyle Busch to clinch his third title. These three drivers, who dominated the win column, admittedly have cornering techniques that mesh well with the COT chassis. Other usual contenders like Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart found their time-honored driving techniques ill-suited to the COT's driving characteristics. For the past two seasons, in effect, the COT has been an ace up Johnson's sleeve when it came to increasing the odds in his favor, just like engine changes (which other teams quickly began imitating) back in Yarborough's day.
The record books now show Yarborough and Johnson are tied when it comes to consecutive championships, none of which are ever easy. But for my money, it was a physically more demanding, rougher and a more challenging sport (in other words more dangerous) when Yarborough ruled the roost.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.