By David Morgan, Associate Editor
When looking back at all the memorable moments Darlington Raceway has produced, all of them aren’t confined to just the Southern 500. Back when the track held two events each year, the spring race produced just as many memorable moments of its own.
The CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 in April 1979 was one of those events.
Richard Petty, driving his famous No. 43 STP car, and Darrell Waltrip, who then drove the No. 88 Gatorade machine for DiGard Racing, staged a battle for the ages throughout the day as they two dueled it out to see who would claim Darlington glory.
Waltrip started on the outside pole and was the early frontrunner, but as the day wore on, it was the Waltrip and Petty Show as the two set about determining the race between themselves. Other drivers, such as David Pearson, Donnie Allison, and others were in the mix as well, but Waltrip and Petty were the clear favorites to take home the win.
Just past the 300 lap mark, Pearson, who was still in contention behind Waltrip and Petty, had a miscue on pit road when he pulled out of his pit stall before his Wood Brothers Racing crew could get all of the lug nuts tight. As a result, both of the left side wheels fell off, ending Pearson’s day early.
“I just came in the pits and undoubtedly, I didn’t know they were going to change all four tires,” Pearson explained. “They usually tell me, but that time I guess I was so interested in beating Darrell out of the pits, you know, I didn’t hear them.
“When they let the jack down, that’s the signal to go when the jack goes down. Of course, they let the jack down and Leonard (Wood) didn’t come around the front and I was wondering why he didn’t come around the front of the car. I don’t know. I guess me being so ignorant trying to beat Darrell out I just took off and they had already taken the lugs off the left tires.”
Back out front, the intensity of the racing between Waltrip and Petty kept ratcheting up and reached a crescendo after the final caution flag of the day fell on lap 360, leading to a five lap shootout for the win.
Petty may have been the leader when the green flag flew for the final time, but Waltrip was hot on his heels the entire time. The two swapped the lead several times over those final five laps, with Waltrip finally getting the upper hand coming off Turn 4 on the last lap, beating Petty to the checkered flag by half a car length.
“Richard and I, for the last 10 laps, we traded the lead two or three times every lap. I’d pass him, he’d pass me, I’d pass him, he’d pass me. Richard and I were having an incredible battle,” Waltrip recalled in an interview with FOX Sports last year.
“Back in the day, they said there’s no way to pass anybody in the third and fourth turn. You had to ride right up next to the rail and come off the corner, so you had to single-file it through there. But I had learned to how drive in there almost like on dirt. I’d get my car a little cocked and run straight across the corner.
“So, we came down to the end of the race, another white flag situation. It’s me and Richard. He’s on the inside, so he’s got the preferred line. I’m stuck out there on the outside and Richard passes me off Turn 2. I’m going to lay with him. I’m going to hang right here and he’s going to think ‘Go ahead sucker, because when I go in the corner, you’re going to go in the wall.’
“But I just had it timed out where when Richard went into the corner, he went in a little hard and he shoved up the hill. And when he did, I did that crossover move and I put that ol’ Gatorade car up under him.”
“That wasn’t necessarily life changing, but it was career changing. Battling The King, who I desperately wanted to dethrone. It was one of my finest hours.”
Behind Waltrip and Petty, Donnie Allison finished third, followed by Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Dick Brooks, and Joe Millikan to round out the top-10.