Carl Edwards did all he could to try to steal this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship from Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR’s season-closer at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Edwards led the most laps and scored his ninth win of the year – more than any other driver – but it wasn’t enough to catch Johnson who finished on the same lap in fifteenth place. After 36 races and ten months of racing Johnson wound-up beating Edwards by 69 points.
So Johnson has achieved a rare feat, joining the great Cale Yarborough as the only other man in NASCAR history to win three championships in a row. Yarborough was a bull-necked superstar of the sixties and seventies who won 83 races and took 70 poles in a career lasting thirty-two years from 1957 through 1988. Yarborough is ranked fifth on NASCAR’s all-time winners list and third among pole winners behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Hailing from rural Sardis, South Carolina, not far from the Darlington Speedway, Yarborough earned his three championships in 1976, ‘77 and ‘78 driving for Junior Johnson’s team. Yarborough and former driver and one-time whiskey runner Johnson made a perfect team of true southerners who won races through pure aggression. During his trio of championship years in Johnson’s cars Yarborough won twenty-eight races, soundly beating Richard Petty to the title in 1976 and ‘77 and defeating Bobby Allison in ‘78.
Yarborough also won the Daytona 500 four times, driving the Wood Brothers’ Mercury in 1968, Junior Johnson’s Chevrolet in ‘77, and Harry Ranier’s Chevrolets in 1983 and ‘84. He also won five Southern 500s at his beloved Darlington.
In his prime, Cale was one of the most aggressive drivers I’ve ever seen. During the 1979 Daytona 500 he famously tangled with Bobby and Donnie Allison while battling for the lead early in the race. In getting back to the pits and repairing his car Yarborough lost three laps and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anyone drive more ferociously and use the yellow flags more aggressively to regain all three laps. At the end he was battling for the lead with Donnie Allison but on the last lap as Cale prepared to make his move the pair came up on Bobby Allison.
What ensued was a classic moment in NASCAR history as Donnie Allison blocked and then hit Yarborough’s car and both wound up spinning out of the race. With the race lost (to Richard Petty) Yarborough and Allison scrambled out of their crashed cars to be joined by Bobby Allison for a televised three-way scuffle. The fight is credited with launching NASCAR to major league sports status in the United States capable of drawing strong national TV ratings and generating massive rights fees.
Jimmie Johnson is a very different character. Born and raised in suburban San Diego, California, Johnson started racing on moto-cross ‘bikes when he was five years old, then went dirt track and off-road racing and dreamed of racing Indy cars like his hero Rick Mears. Johnson is a classic example of NASCAR’s modern breed that grew up outside the South. He’s a quiet, considerate fellow who maintains an apartment in New York City as well as a home on Lake Norman in North Carolina.
So far, Johnson has won 40 first division Sprint Cup races, including the 2002 Daytona 500, and is ranked 15th on NASCAR’s all-time winners list. After equalling Yarborough’s rare tally of three championships in a row Johnson has raced his way among NASCAR’s legends. But at 33 he’s in the prime of his career with many more wins possible and a few more likely championships, too. He deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cale Yarborough.