No. 2 most memorable Daytona 500: The fist fight
No. 2 most memorable Daytona 500: 1979.
Nothing like a good old Southern brawl to get people's attention.
• The Bee Gees put three songs in the Top 10.
• "Superman" ruled the box office.
• The U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, is seized.
• A gas crisis pushes a gallon of gas to 86 cents.
• A postage stamp cost 15 cents.
• Average cost of a new house was $71,800.
• Average income was $16,461.
-- Terry Blount
NASCAR wanted to put on a special show for the 1979 Daytona 500. The CBS telecast marked the first time a 500-mile race had been broadcast live from start to finish.
In those days, the Indianapolis 500 was shown on tape delay the evening of the race. Most other telecasts began when races were half over.
So the '79 Daytona 500 was a big day, a chance for the drivers to show a national TV audience what NASCAR was all about.
Oh, boy. They certainly did.
Seconds after Richard Petty claimed a surprising victory, Donnie Allison, brother Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough had a backstretch slugfest that CBS captured for everyone to see.
They punched, kicked, choked and slung helmets at each other, ending the telecast with one of the wildest fights in NASCAR history.
Viewers watching NASCAR for the first time didn't just see a race, they saw a last-lap crash between the leaders that caused a tag-team wrestling match.
Donnie Allison was in front on the final lap and Yarborough right behind him. As they zoomed down the backstretch, Yarborough moved low to try to slingshot past Allison.
But Allison also moved low and Yarborough's left-side tires got in the infield, which was muddy from a morning rain shower.
Yarborough lost control of the car and bumped Allison. Both cars banged together and skidded up into the Turn 3 wall before sliding down into the infield grass.
Bobby Allison got out of his car to see if both drivers were OK. Bobby finished a lap down, but Yarborough felt Bobby was blocking him on the last lap.
"I was trying to talk to Donnie when Cale started hollering at me," Bobby said, looking back years later. "Then he hit me in the face with his helmet."
It was time to rumble.
"The rest is history," Donnie said in a TV interview. "It was the lightweight championship of the world after that."
Few people remember it now, but the last-lap crash was the second of the day between the Allison brothers and Yarborough. All three cars came together on the backstretch of Lap 32.
Yarborough got the worst of it, making repairs in the pits and going four laps down. But he made a remarkable comeback, making up three laps over a 35-lap span by taking advantage of some cautions.
"Donnie had a great car," Yarborough said. "But I passed him twice on the backstretch when cautions came out [there was no freezing of the field in those days] to get laps back. I knew at the end I could do it again."
Not quite. The wreck happened and took out both cars. Petty was half a lap back in third, but quickly learned from his crew that he was racing for the win.
Petty was four car-lengths ahead of Darrell Waltrip entering Turn 3, but Waltrip closed the gap and got up to Petty's bumper on the frontstretch.
Waltrip made an attempt to get by Petty down low, but Petty held on for his fifth Daytona 500 victory.
Petty was racing despite the advice of his doctors, who told him to stay home and rest. He had undergone offseason surgery to remove 40 percent of his stomach.
The victory ended Petty's 45-race losing streak that dated back to the July race at Daytona in 1977.
"I'm on top of the world," Petty said afterward. "I'm OK physically, but from a mental standpoint, it was rough. I thought it was the worst race I've ever been in the way the cars were jumping around on the track."
Petty went on to win his seventh and final Cup championship, in 1979. Finishing eighth at Daytona was a rookie named Dale Earnhardt, the man who would tie Petty for the most Cup titles.
The 1979 season had a lot of special memories, but nothing as memorable as the three-man slugfest at Daytona witnessed on national TV.
At the time, Yarborough found the entire incident disgusting.
"It's the worst thing I've ever seen in racing," Yarborough said.
But time changes your perspective. Eventually, Yarborough took a different view.
"I think it made a lot of fans," Yarborough said years later. "People looked at that and said, 'These boys are real people and they do real things.' Looking back now, I think it's one of the biggest things that ever happened in the sport. It got people's attention."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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