NASCAR: Yarborough resigned to sharing mark with Johnson

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Associated PressWhen Cale Yarborough won a third-straight NASCAR title in 1978, he never expected that it would take 30 years for someone else to challenge that record.
Now that two-time reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson appears on the way to doing just that, Yarborough has mixed feelings about sharing the record that some thought was untouchable.
“The handwriting’s on the wall,” Yarborough said Monday during a telephone news conference. “It’s going to happen.
“I understand that I was Jimmie’s hero when he was growing up, so if he does it more power to him,” the longtime NASCAR star added.
Then that old competitive streak that helped Yarborough to 83 race wins, including four Daytona 500s, showed itself.
“That don’t mean I’m pulling for him,” Yarborough added, laughing. “But, if he does it, I’ll be in good company. I hope he feels the same way.”
While the 32-year-old Johnson has not finished worse than fifth in the points since he became a full-time Cup driver in 2002, Yarborough’s best years didn’t come until he got a full-time ride with Richard Howard in 1973 at the age of 34.
The driver from South Carolina finished second for two straight years driving for Howard before going to work for Junior Johnson in 1975. He finished ninth that first year with Johnson before beginning his unprecedented string of championship in 1976.
Yarborough stayed with Johnson for two more seasons, finishing fourth in the points in 1979 and losing the title to Dale Earnhardt by just 19 points in 1980. That was his last full season of racing before cutting his schedule to spend more time with his family.
But Yarborough said he truly appreciates what Johnson has already accomplished, and what he may yet do.
“Well, back in the ’70s was tremendous competition,” Yarborough said. “The Pettys, Bakers, Allisons, all those guys, they were all great race car drivers. Jimmie is going up against some good race car drivers today. They were good back then and they’re good today. (Winning championships is) just hard to do.”
As for winning three in a row, he said, “Must have been pretty tough. Nobody’s done it in 30 years. … Thinking back, with (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt, (Jeff) Gordon, you would think that some of those guys would have put three together within those 30 years. But thank goodness they didn’t.”
Johnson, coming off a victory Sunday at Martinsville, goes to Atlanta this week holding a lead of 149 points over Greg Biffle and 152 over Jeff Burton with just four races remaining in this year’s Chase for the championship.
Johnson hasn’t directly addressed the possibility of making history with another title, though, after his sixth victory of the season, he did say, “I’m going to have to answer those questions one of these days, aren’t I?”
For Yarborough, who raced in NASCAR’s top series for 23 seasons before retiring in 1988, Johnson is something of a throwback to the drivers of his era.
“I’ve watched Jimmie,” he said. “He’s the kind of driver that likes to run up front. That’s the way I drove. I can see a lot of me in Jimmie. I can appreciate what he’s doing. He’s got his head on straight and he’s doing everything right and I can appreciate that.”
One major difference between the years when Yarborough won his titles and the current era is the points format. In his day, everyone raced for the same points throughout the season. Since 2004, the Cup title has been decided by the Chase, with a small group of drivers who spent 26 races making themselves eligible for the postseason competing for the championship over the final 10 races of the season.
“I think it may have been harder to win (championships) back then than it is today because you had to compete against everybody,” Yarborough said.
Asked if he would have to change his style if he was racing today, Yarborough said, “I never was one to do much calculating. I went all out every lap I ever raced in my whole career. I’d still be doing it today.
“The only thing I can say is Jimmie better be glad I’m not racing with him today.”