50 First Victories: An Unusual Start

post by
Al Pearce
Cale Yarborough scored his first win in 1965 and drove on to win three series championships in the 1970s.

Journalists Al Pearce and Mike Hembree chronicle the journey of NASCAR’s best as they drive their way to that landmark first victory in 50 First Victories. With a combined ninety years of coverage of one of America’s grassroots sports, they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the stories of these fast-and-furious heroes, drivers who ran to the ragged edge—and often past it—in pursuit of the checkered flag. In this excerpt from the book, catch a sneak peek at Cale Yarborough's path to victory.

In the world of race car drivers, there is tough, and then there is Cale Yarborough tough.

Cale Yarborough tough is another level, right up there with A. J. Foyt tough.

Let Pete Hamilton, once a key challenger to Yarborough when Cale drove Wood Brothers Mercurys and Hamilton was in Petty Enterprises Plymouths,offer a description.

“Probably the guy I battled with more than anybody else was Cale Yarborough,” Hamilton said in an interview years after their glory days. “We had some pretty tough fights in a lot of different places. One that comes to mind was at Michigan.

“We banged fenders all day long. At the end, he got paid for first. It was his determination. In those days we didn’t have side glasses or window netting, so you could look over at the other guy going down the straightaway. I remember looking over at Cale. Even at 185 miles per hour, you could see the determination in his eyes.”

That race was at Michigan International Speedway on June 7, 1970. Yarborough took the lead from Hamilton with two laps to go and outran him by 0.3 of a second at the finish.

It was one of eighty-three Cup victories Yarborough would score across a driving career that stretched from 1957 to 1988. He was the first driver to win three consecutive Cup championships (1976–1978). He won the Daytona 500 four times and the Southern 500 five times. Among many notable Yarborough statistics: he led 21 percent of the laps he raced.

Yarborough’s first win came under unusual circumstances. He was scheduled to drive a Ford owned by Kenny Myler in a two-hundred-lap Cup race at Valdosta, Georgia, June 26, 1965. But bad weather trapped Yarborough in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he couldn’t make the trip to southern Georgia. Sam McQuagg started the race in Myler’s car, but rain halted the event after twenty-five laps, causing a postponement to the next day. 

Standard NASCAR procedures call for races that are interrupted by rain to resume on the next clear day at the point at which they were halted. For whatever reason, the Valdosta race restarted at lap one the next day, and Yarborough, after driving from Charlotte and sleeping in his car (along with his wife and two daughters), was there. He led the last eighteen laps to break into the Cup winner’s circle in his seventy-eighth career race.

If the race had resumed on the twenty-sixth lap, McQuagg would have been credited with the win because NASCAR considers the driver starting races as the “official” driver for the record.

The circumstances notwithstanding, Yarborough had established himself as a winner. Three years later, he scored what he has always considered his biggest win in the 1968 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, his “home” track and his favorite. That Labor Day afternoon was brutally hot, and photos of Yarborough in victory lane show his grimy face grinning through the exhaustion.

He was fully launched into a career that would make him an all-time stock car racing great.