Darlington Legends: Homegrown Yarborough has Storied History at the Lady in Black
By: Jim McLaurin
DARLINGTON, S.C. (Dec. 10, 2008) – In 2002, Jeff Gordon tied Cale Yarborough's record of five Southern 500 wins at Darlington Raceway, but there's one mark Yarborough is likely to hold forever: To date, he's the only driver in NASCAR history to come in under the fence at Darlington and go out over it.
His daddy would have been proud.
Maybe not so much the "under the fence" part, because sneaking into a race was not something of which Julian Yarborough would have approved. And the "over?" Come to think of it, Cale's pop might not have been too thrilled about that, either. But everything else, ...
"Aw, yeah. He'd have been proud of my whole career - not just Darlington," Yarborough said. "But he'd sure have been proud of me winning five Southern 500s.
"He was a big race fan."
Yarborough was a lad of 10 the summer leading up to the first Southern 500, in 1950, and no doubt looked forward to going with his best racing buddy. But Julian Yarborough was killed when his small plane crashed that summer, and the father never got to attend what would become the biggest race of the year with his son, much less see his boy win it five times.
It's a disappointment Yarborough has lived with for most of his life, even though he said he wasn't all that certain he'd have gotten to go to the first one, anyhow.
"We went all over to races back then. We went to Columbia for the races a lot of times, and we'd go to an old track in Florence, but ... we'd certainly talked about the Southern 500," Yarborough said. "I don't know whether he was going to take me or not; he was probably going with the older people."
At any rate, Yarborough managed to make it to the second race, in 1951, even crawling in under the fence after waiting in the ticket line for as long as he could stand it.
"I wasn't sneaking in to be sneaking in," he said. "I was just too anxious to get inside and see my heroes."
Yarborough's dream of one day becoming one of those heroes began that day, but it was a dream with a few nightmarish episodes along the way.
"We went in the corner side-by-side, and for some reason my car just got airborne," said Yarborough, who still lives in the tiny Sardis community some 20 miles from NASCAR's first big track. "I went over the hood of his car - never even touched the guardrail - and went out into the parking lot. I ended upside of a telephone pole."
Yarborough described his tangle with Sam McQuagg that sent him over the guardrail in the 1965 Southern 500 that came perilously close to ending his career almost before it got started.
It was three years later before Yarborough found victory lane in the Southern 500 for the first time - he won it in 1968, '73, '74, '78 and '82 - and that first one, he said, is still the biggest of his 83 career wins. Not only because it was his first at Darlington, but because it was the last one on the old track where he'd watched his heroes race.
The track was re-paved after the 1968 Southern 500, so Yarborough was the last driver to literally follow in their footsteps.
"It's still hard to drive today," Yarborough said, "but back before they changed it, it was almost impossible to race on. The difference between the old track and the new one is like night and day.
"I think Jeff ought to have to win six to equal my five," Yarborough said, laughing, "because my first one was on the old track, and it was twice as hard to win."
Record-wise, 2008 has been a tough year for Yarborough. When Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag at Homestead in November, he clinched his third straight championship. That tied a mark held even longer by Yarborough.Yarborough won three straight titles
from 1976-78 driving for Junior Johnson, and some awfully good drivers since have had shots at the mark, and none succeeded until Jimmie Johnson.
But Yarborough doesn’t begrudge him a share of the record.
"That's OK," he said. "I'm just surprised that that record stood for 30 years. It has been a good ride for 30 years. Having somebody like Jimmie do it ... I understand that I was his hero growing up, and that would be fine with me."
Next year might be tougher to take, if Johnson breaks his mark. But with Gordon, Yarborough’s win in ’68 gives him a little leeway, he said.
And even if Gordon does eventually top that mark, don't worry. Yarborough has still got the "over-under" covered.
Be a part of history when Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 years of racing in 2009. Tickets to the 2009 Southern 500®, as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series Diamond Hill Plywood 200 are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.
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