Sole Winston title threepeat seems safe


They couldn't do it: Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Joe Weatherly, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt.

Such famous Winston Cup drivers. All winners of back-to-back titles, Petty twice and Earnhardt three times. But over the sport's first 50 years only one, Cale Yarborough, has won three straight titles -- in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

And judging by the way things are going this season for Jeff Gordon, the two-time defending champion, Yarborough isn't going to have company any time soon. Going into this weekend's race at Dover, Del., Gordon is in sixth place, 418 points behind.

"I remember those championships very well," Yarborough said from his car dealership in Florence, S.C. "I do not have the answer for why no one was able to win three straight before me or after me. All I know is that I had a good car owner in Junior [Johnson], a good race team, and a lot of desire."

Walk around the Winston Cup garage area, and car owners, crew chiefs and drivers will tell you competition is so tough today that for any one team to win three straight titles is nearly impossible.

But back when Yarborough and Johnson were making history, people were saying the same things they say now: more competition, more money, better teams.

"It's the very same stuff," said Yarborough. "But everybody on our team was so dedicated. Junior was on top of everything. He was the ramrod in the garage keeping everybody focused."

It also helped that at that time Johnson was the first who tried -- and perfected -- the quick engine change during a race. NASCAR eventually outlawed it. If a car blows an engine now, it's done for the day. But back then, if the motor blew, a team could try to change it and get back in the race. It was a tremendous advantage for Yarborough.

A couple other things set the Yarborough-Johnson threepeat apart.

Each year, the team got better. In 1976, they won the title by 195 points. In 1977, they won by 386 points. And, in 1978, when focus should have been ebbing, they won by 474 points -- the second largest margin in the modern (post 1971) era.

They also won that third title even though they switched from a Chevrolet to Oldsmobile before the season's start.

"I attribute a lot of our success in that last year to Cale," said Johnson from his North Carolina farm. "It's hard to keep a crew and driver all motivated. You win one. Win another. Pretty soon, everyone thinks it will come natural.

"But everyone concentrated on their jobs, and Cale is such a determined person. I know he gave 200 percent every day."

Yarborough doesn't deny that. "I wanted that third straight title pretty bad," he said. "Junior's right. I knew no one had done it. I had a great desire to win three in a row."

Yarborough believes someone else -- possibly the Joe Gibbs teams of Bobby Labonte and rookie sensation Tony Stewart -- will get three straight. Gordon's team has tried hard this year, he said, adding: "But the wind doesn't blow the same way all the time. You do have to have some luck. When we did it, we were dedicated and determined, but we were lucky, too, to keep the same people and the same things going our way."

In 1979, at 40, Yarborough finished fourth in points and left the team, because he wanted to run fewer races and spend more time with his family.

"If I hadn't done what I did," Yarborough said, "I know we would have won more championships. But now, as I look back, I know I made the right decision. And the fact that I won three straight still means an awful lot to me. It's almost unbelievable that I'm still the only one."

Still in the hunt

Bobby Labonte went into this season believing he had a chance to win his first Winston Cup title. Now, eight races from the finish, he still believes.

"There is still a long way to go and points to get," he said.

Going into today's MBNA Gold 400, Labonte has moved into second place, 254 points behind Dale Jarrett. That's the difference between one bad race for Jarrett and one good one for Labonte.

"Chances are we're going to make some mistakes," he said, "but right now, we've still got a chance to win the title."

Nuts and bolts

The new Grand American Road Racing Association and its schedule for 2000 was unveiled last week. The GARRA will sanction eight events at seven tracks, starting Feb. 3 at Daytona International Speedway and concluding Oct. 6 at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Willy T. Ribbs makes his debut today in the Dennis McCormack-owned Indy Racing League car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"I have been the first at many things in my life," said Ribbs, who was the first African-American driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and will be the first to compete in the IRL. "But the only first I'm really concerned about is being the first one across that finish line."

CART rookie Juan Montoya, who won three straight races before losing two weeks ago, will try for his eighth win -- tying the CART single-season record -- at the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston today.

Double winners

Nine drivers have won back-to-back Winston Cup season titles since 1949, but only one, Cale Yarborough, has three consecutive titles.

Driver, Title years

Buck Baker, 1955-56

Lee Petty, 1958-59

Joe Weatherly, 1962-63

David Pearson, 1968-69

Richard Petty, 1971-72, '74-75

Cale Yarborough, 1976-78

Darrell Waltrip, 1981-82

Dale Earnhardt, 1986-87, '90-91, '93-94

Jeff Gordon, 1997-98

Source: NASCAR

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad