Gurney Cheers, Waltrip Wins

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Gurney Gets the Cheers, Waltrip Gets the Win, By Shav Glick - Los Angeles Times, Sunday January 20, 1980

Riverside - The Big Kid from Newport Beach (he’ll be 49 in April) looked like he’d just been given an electric train for Christmas. The train broke down while he was having fun but the disappointment couldn’t wipe the smile off Dan Gurney’s face.

For 79 laps Saturday, from the cheers of the modest-sized crowd, you’d have thought Gurney – out of retirement after almost 10 years – was driving the only car on the track. As the white No. 48 with the blue trim moved up from seventh to third place in the Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway, the opening race of the $6 million Winston Cup series seemed more a showcase for Gurney than a battle among the world’s fastest stock car drivers.


Then abruptly it ended. Gurney felt the gear box gurgle as his Monte Carlo crossed the start-finish line on lap 79 and he coasted to a stop in the dirt apron off Turn 6 – right across the track from where his wife Evi, watched.

From then on the attention switched to the race, a battle between Cale Yarborough and seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, spiced by the presence of Darrell Waltrip struggling to make up a lost lap when he cut a tire.

The situation was similar to the Times 500 last November at Ontario in which Waltrip lost a lap early in the race and never made it back up – resulting in his losing the season championship to Petty in the year’s final race.

It was a different Waltrip this time. Instead of taking the cautious approach he used in the Times 500, Waltrip set sail after Yarborough, caught and passed him – and then made up a lap and passed him again to win his second straight Winston Western 500. It was Waltrip’s third win in four starts on the Riverside’s twisting 2.62 – mile road course. He also won the opening race last October in the International Race of Champions.

"Fella leads the race as long as I did ought to win it, shouldn’t he?" Waltrip asked with a grin at race’s end. "Shucks I was ahead more’n a week"

Pole-sitter Waltrip was at the head of the pack last Sunday when 24 laps of the 119-lap race (500 kilometers or 312 miles) were run under the yellow caution flag. An unrelenting drizzle stopped the race and postponed it until Saturday when it was resumed – with Waltrip in front – on lap 25.

The race started single-file and for the first 10 laps there wasn’t a change among the 10 leaders - Waltrip, Yarborough, Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Dave Marcis, Gurney, Benny Parsons, Joe Milikan and Bill Schmitt.

Outside an unscheduled pit stop by Allison to change a tire, that’s the way the pack was running when Waltrip ran over something and cut his right rear tire. When it began to lose pressure he was passed first by Yarborough and then by Petty.

On lap 45 Waltrip dropped off the track and took a shortcut to his pits where chief Buddy Parrott and his crew changed all four tires. A 30-second penalty for taking the shortcut dropped Waltrip a lap behind the leaders.

"When I got those four new tires on I knew I could reel in Cale (Yarborough) and then all I needed was a break to get all the way around and get to the front again," Waltrip said. " That little caution (on lap 82 when Lake Speed stopped in a dangerous position alongside the track) was all I needed."

Most of this drama was overlooked as the crowd was watching Gurney moving up, first past Earnhardt, then Allison and Waltrip when they had their problems – until he was third on the scoreboard. Gurney’s off-course pass of Earnhardt brought the crowd to its feet, waving Gurney for President banners, as the Riverside legend shot across the dirt between the third and forth turns to make the pass.

Earnhardt, 1979’s NASCAR Rookie of the Year and the surprise pole sitter here for last June’s NAPA 400, came back later in the race to briefly challenge Waltrip for the lead.

Earnhardt finished second, 2.97 seconds back, with Petty third, Milikan, fourth and Schmitt, the Winston West champion from the Redding , fifth. All were on the same lap with Waltrip when the race ended – 30 minutes shy of six days. Realistically, the 500 kilometers took 3 hours 16 minutes 58 seconds for a 94.974 m.p.h. average.

Waltrip collected a track record $24,400 and the point lead in for the 1980 31 – race season.

"This is an awful good way to start off the year," said Waltrip, who lost by a paltry 11 points out of more than 10,000 last year. "We won the pole and we won the race and that has to give the crew, the owners, the engine man and the driver a big boost for the Daytona 500. Our team has matured a whole lot since last November. I think we profited by our experiences, the good ones and the bad ones. This is a new year and there’s no better way to start than by winning."

Waltrip said he had two close calls during the 500 kilometers, both coming out of high speed Turn 9.

"The first time the 57 car (Steve Pfeifer) was heading for the pits and I came off turn nine pretty hard and we made a little contact. The next time it was kinda the same situation. I don’t know who it was but it seemed I was running through nine a lot harder than anyone else so when they cut into the pits I was running up their back. My car was so stable I had no trouble running as hard as I had to anywhere on the track."

During mid-race, Yarborough seemed to have the strongest car on the track. He led for 31 laps and had only Waltrip to contend with when his car’s ignition system went on the blink around lap 98.

Waltrip inherited the lead at this point and except for one lap when he pitted and permitted Petty to take the lead. Waltrip was in command. Petty’s last chance was lost when he had to pit for fuel and two tires only 12 laps from the end. This permitted Waltrip the luxury of stopping for a touch of gasoline without losing the lead.

"I thought I had plenty of room to spare when I stopped," Waltrip said, "and all of a sudden the crew told me about the No. 2 car (Earnhardt). I hadn’t noticed him. I thought all we had to beat was Petty. I found out I could pull him through nine and down the backstraight so I quit worrying."

Waltrip’s win from the pole was only the third time it has happened in 19 winter races here. Bobby Allison did it in 1975 and Gurney in 1968.

Gurney in 1980 didn’t do it but it was the former Riverside Junior College student who became America’s most popular driver in the 60’s and made the race a memorable affair. After such a fine showing, is Gurney going to continue his comeback?

"No, I’m not going to do it again," he said, "Not unless I change my mind again, anyway." Any bets?