When the Winston Cup traveling road show arrived at Dover Downs in 1979 for the September 16th running of the CRC Chemicals 500 the season’s championship seemed to be Darrell Waltrip’s for the taking. Waltrip rolled into Delaware with a 187 point lead in the standings riding a great year with seven victories. Darrell won a thrilling late race battle with Richard Petty at Darlington in the Spring also clicking off big wins at Charlotte and Talladega adding to his totals. Darrell was about to embark on a different kind of battle running to the end of the season looking for his first Winston Cup title.
This race would be pivotal in the championship run as the one mile steeply banked oval was notoriously brutal on men and machine. Dover’s 500 mile grind would live up to it’s reputation as a back breaker and more importantly the maker of champions.
The 1979 season is mostly remembered for Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough’s last lap altercation at Daytona in February. Richard Petty’s surprise win is almost a footnote in comparison to the impact that this race had on the television viewing audience and to the sport in general.
In reality 1979 proved to be one of the most competitive season’s in the history of Nascar. Several races were decided in their final moments as the best in the business put on a show that has not been seen before or since. Statistically the decade of the 70’s is not that impressive as only a handful of drivers dominated the Winston Cup Series but the competition was breathtaking. Breaking into this exclusive club of all time greats was not easy by any stretch as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and David Pearson had a stronghold on this series that seemed impenetrable.
Darrell Waltrip broke into the exclusive club by winning at Nashville in 1975 driving his own car. Waltrip then signed with Digard racing and provided them with a win at Richmond late in the season. Darrell finally arrived and with no problem telling anyone who would listen.
Richard Petty had been the King of Nascar for well over 10 years but some wondered if his crown was starting crumble after going winless in 1978 and having stomach surgery during the off season. Winning at Daytona put those thoughts to rest but could Richard still compete at the highest level after years on top of the racing world ? The “79” season would answer that question. Richard lurked in the shadows early in the season winning his second of the year at Martinsville in the Spring. Petty winning at Clay Earls half mile paper clip surprised no one but there was more work to be done. Richard served notice to the competition that the 43 bunch was for real by winning at Michigan in August. His consistency was uncanny while staying close to Waltrip in the championship battle.
Waltrip could see the brass ring after dusting Petty at Darlington possibly losing sight of the big picture and losing his tongue. Darrell’s comments that maybe the older drivers needed to hang it up did not fall on deaf ears but rather got the attention of a cool cat from North Carolina. Darrell made two mistakes in 1979 by thinking that it belonged to him and by telling everybody that this deal was his.
Dover Downs would break his back as Waltrip was regulated to a 29th place finish losing 104 points of his lead in the standings. Petty’s mastery of the mile speedway in Delaware became clear as he took control late in the event holding off a charging Donnie Allison by less than a car length at the checkered flag. Richard had driven beautifully all year and Dover’s result was no exception.
Petty made a statement a month later at Rockingham with another stunning performance finishing just ahead of Benny Parsons as Waltrip again lost more momentum that he would never recoup. The battle for the title came to a head in the season’s final race at Ontario California with Waltrip carrying a 2 point lead over Petty. The two had been going back and forth over the last month of the season trying to take control of the championship. This battle was a reminder of the slugfest between the two at Darlington in April but this time the outcome would be different.
Early in the race Buddy Baker breathed his black and silver Chevrolet allowing Petty to lead gaining a precious 5 bonus points. Waltrip led the very next lap keeping his advantage but as the race progressed Waltrip lost a lap due to mechanical difficulties. He was never able to regain the lost track position as Richard cruised to a 5th place finish winning his 7th title as Benny Parsons took the checkered flag.
Richard’s spectacular season is in the numbers. Five victories including the Daytona 500 with 23 top five and 27 top ten finishes out of 31 events. Incredibly Petty’s brilliant run included 19 straight top ten finishes with 15 top five’s to finish the season. It is little wonder that Waltrip couldn’t get it done.
The 1979 season is remembered for Daytona but on a hot Sunday afternoon in Dover Delaware Richard Petty held court as he had many times before showing why he is the King.