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Ah, Daytona '79....would that we could be so lucky again


1979: After crashing on the last lap, Cale Yarborough (foreground) fighting with Donnie Allison, as brother Bobby Allison tries to tackle Yarborough. (Photo: RacingOne Multimedia)


By Mike Mulhern

   Remember the winter of '79….and that 'perfect storm' during SpeedWeeks that pinned much of America to the couch that Daytona 500 Sunday?
   Some call that the day NASCAR changed forever.
   CBS was doing live wire-to-wire TV coverage for the first time.
   The battling down the stretch was fierce between Donnie Allison, in Hoss Ellington's Oldsmobile (remember when Olds was the hot car in NASCAR?), trying to hold off Cale Yarborough, in Junior Johnson's Olds.
    The last lap Yarborough went low off the second corner and Allison tried to chop him off. Took him all the way to the infield grass, in fact. Yarborough didn't back off; he turned right, and drove the two men right into the outside wall, as Richard Petty slipped by for the win.
   Then came the big fight.
   An infamous day in NASCAR history.
   The kind of day we long for now, with so many plain vanilla drivers and so many scaredy-cat sponsors.
   Jeff Hammond was then working on the Yarborough-Johnson crew: "Our crew is yelling 'Hey, there's a fight down in turn four!'
   "Half the crew took off running to help Cale out. 
    "I remember looking over at Junior and thinking 'If the boss man isn't running down there, he must not think it's a big enough deal. And he certainly didn't tell me to go down there.'
   "So I started cleaning up the pits. 
    "I realized Junior wasn't big on the fighting thing, and I later asked him 'Junior, why didn't you go down there?'
    "He said 'He started it. He can finish it.'"
   Jimmy Spencer knows the feeling well. He was in the stands, watching that day: "Cale wanted to win, and Donnie didn't want to surrender.
   "That was pure, unadulterated racing.  Both refused to give up. Giving us one of the most exciting Daytona 500s of all time.
    "Those guys were frustrated as hell with each other…and I loved it.
     "It's no different than Saturday night racing, and the arguing and fighting that ensues when someone loses a race.
   " Cale, Donnie and Bobby didn't do anything all of us racers haven't done before…or at least thought of doing. They just did it at the perfect time -- for the entire country to watch and be captivated by a Southern-style brawl. 
   "They put NASCAR on the map in a big way and helped us get where we are now."
   Unfortunately the probability of such a finish to this season's Daytona 500 is slim. Most corporate sponsors don't like that kind of stuff….and most car owners are so beholden to the corporate dollar they don't like it either.
   "There's a responsibility that a race car driver has that's a little different than an actor or a football player or a basketball player -- because we represent every employee and every customer of every one of our sponsors.
   "That adds a little extra burden.
    "I think it's good, I think that's a good burden.  But it is different."
    So that 1979 Daytona 500 may be a part of Americana that may have come and gone….unless Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart can get riled up enough.
   So what to expect when SpeedWeeks opens this week?
   Well, Jeff Burton, who had a great shot at the NASCAR championship last fall, until running out of steam, says without Daytona testing, or any head-to-head testing really, it's hard to judge what to expect in Saturday night's Bud Shootout.
   The only real controversy so far about that event concerns the silly entry rules that NASCAR and whoever owns Anheuser-Busch these days devised.
   Uh, like last year's Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman didn't make the cut….but winless Paul Menard did?
   How's that again?
   That, and NASCAR's highly questionable decision to ban Daytona 500, makes these next few days curious.
   On the technical side, "We don't know what we have," Burton says. "Without testing, we honestly don't know where we stand up to our competition.
    "We feel really confident our engine program has taken a major step, so we feel real strong about that coming to Daytona.  We saw that at Talladega in the fall.  So we're excited.
   "But there's a lot of unknowns…and those unknowns are a cause for concern."
   There are also probably a lot of shenanigans being played behind the scenes. Toyota's Lee White, head of its NASCAR racing program, says one team owner tried to block out Rockingham Speedway, buying up enough testing days that no one else could test there.
   And teams have been testing -- legally – at a number of non-NASCAR tracks and at Proving Grounds in Arizona.
   So where's the line in testing?
   What's right and what's wrong?
   And if NASCAR can't police the rule, why does it even bother? NASCAR officials were ready to open up testing for this season, until the economy turned sour. Now NASCAR officials say they are saving teams money with the testing ban.
   "First of all, the proving grounds are nothing new," Burton says. "We've been using the proving grounds for a long time.
   "Teams are going to go to Rockingham; teams are going to go do whatever they can to test.
   "We still have tires. As long as we have tires that are close to what we are racing, there's something to be learned.
   "In desperate times, in difficult times, you have to make difficult decisions.
    "We don't have a testing ban -- we have a testing restriction.
    "If you think it's going to make you better, that's what you need to do."
   For Burton, at Daytona and elsewhere, the key issue he says is simple – speed: "The thing we haven't done very well as a company, if you look at the laps we've led, the races we've won, that's our weakness. Speed.
     "That's a big weakness. In racing, speed is pretty darned important.
    "We have to find a way to lead more laps to put ourselves in position to win more races. And you do that by brute force speed. That's what our focus has been on.
    "We struggle taking a tire (for testing) that has nothing to do with where you're testing for. No matter how hard you work on bump-stops, no matter how hard you work on shocks, no matter how hard you work on geometry, the last thing that touches the road is the tire…and the tire has a huge bearing on how your car drives. 
    "So we haven't done a tremendous amount of off-season testing because we don't feel like we have the tire that's going to give us the information we really need.
   "Last year we tested a lot. Our team and Kevin Harvick's team tested a great deal. We thought we got results from that.
   "But we had the right tire. 
   "Without the right tire, I don't know."
   Thus, instead of spending money on real race tires and testing on real tour tracks – and perhaps helping promote that upcoming race at the same time – teams have been spending money on engineering and computers.
   "That hopefully will yield a result," Burton says.
   "If it doesn't, we'll be doing a lot of testing the old-fashioned way.
    "But it's clear to me -- as it is to most people -- that as we continue to invest in technology, that ultimately is going to be more effective than going to a race track and testing."
   Yes, and that just reinforces crew chief Greg Zipadelli's philosophy that the cheapest, best way to learn in this sport, and get better, is to test on the right tracks with the right tires.
   Engineering is expensive.
   Driving to, say, Richmond or Pocono or Atlanta to test, is much cheaper.
   But so far NASCAR executives haven't seen it quite that way.
   "Trust me -- if NASCAR says 'Hey, you can go to Daytona and test,' we're going to be here because that's very effective," Burton says.
   "If NASCAR says 'You can go to Texas and test,' we're going to be there too, because that's very effective. 
    "Now I don't know how effective testing is at Rockingham, because that's an extremely rough track that we're not going to race on anything like. You're not going to fine-tune a California set-up at Rockingham, I can promise you that."
   And NASCAR's California promoters certainly aren't going to sell any more tickets when teams are sitting at home in North Carolina or testing down in the Sandhills.


The whole testing issue has me baffled. Depending more and more on technology is a great way to burn more money faster. Doesn't it make more sense to go to tracks a day early, use it for testing, then have the regular race weekend? Why is that so impossible for Nascar to understand? Never mind. It's Brian France.

Give them real Goodyears...

I agree -- this testing ban is nuts. It was a nice PR move, back in November, when the Detroit heads were going to Washington. But, first, it's unrealistic to try to stop testing. Second, it hurts the little teams, which don't have as much access to high tech as the big guys. And third -- hey, just listen to crew chief Greg Zipadelli: testing at the right track with the right tire is the best, cheapest way for any team to get better.
On top of that -- hey, how are ticket sales shaping up this season? Get these drivers out to these tracks -- Atlanta looks like a great opportunity -- let them test, let fans in for free (make a couple bucks of hot dogs and cokes), and have the drivers sit down for autograph sessions at 5 p.m. before flying home.
I agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that NASCAR's promoters need to get up and start promoting.
And why can't Goodyear come up with enough tires for testing anyway? A nice big test at Indy and Atlanta last season might have kept those two debacles from happening.

'79 500 Should Have Been About Passing, Not Fights

People forget that Billy France was horrified that people were citing the fight instead of all the passing - 37 official lead changes and about 13 additional ones - that happened in that particular 500. "We've got the best show in sport. We don't need crashes and fights to sell tickets."

He was right. All the passing in that 500 was enough to sell the sport.

On testing, the ban makes zero sense. One, it can't be stopped. Two, it locks in every edge the big teams have.

On selling tickets, harder and faster promotion isn't what these tracks need, though bringing back testing can help. What's needed is what that 1979 500 had and what last October's Talladega race had - so much passing that people can't ignore it.

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