Editor’s Note: NASCAR is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023. SPEED SPORT was founded in 1934 and was already on its way to becoming America’s Motorsports Authority when NASCAR was formed. As a result, we will bring you Part 37 of a 75-part series on the history of NASCAR as told in the pages of National Speed Sport News and SPEED SPORT Magazine.
Terry Labonte certainly held the credentials of a winner. Since his rookie year in 1979, Labonte had improved from 10th in the final standings to third in the 1982 championship race. He was fifth in 1983 on the strength of 20 top-10 finishes and one victory.
Yet, unlike two-time champion and quote-maker extraordinaire Darrell Waltrip, the “King” Richard Petty or the legendary Cale Yarborough, Labonte had not reached NASCAR Winston Cup’s summit.
In 1984, the unassuming driver from Corpus Christi, Texas, did.
Yarborough led the Daytona 500 field under the green flag and used a final-lap slingshot around Waltrip to earn a Speedweeks hat trick which had been accomplished only once before. He joined Fireball Roberts as the only other driver to capture the Daytona 500 pole, the qualifying race and the Daytona 500.
Yarborough’s fourth Daytona 500 victory tied him with Bobby Allison for third on NASCAR’s all-time victory list with 79.
Waltrip fell short again the following week at Richmond Raceway when Ricky Rudd passed him on the 381st of 400 laps. Waltrip led 348 laps from the pole, but with Goodyear out of tires by the final round of pit stops, Waltrip was forced to finish the race on worn tires.
While frustrating, Waltrip’s runner-up finish pushed him to the top of the standings.
The Budweiser Monte Carlo pilot held the top spot lor another week despite Allison’s victory at North Carolina Motor Speedway. However, Waltrip fell to third in the standings after finishing 11th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Benny Parsons triumphed.
On April 1, Waltrip reclaimed the point lead with his seventh consecutive victory at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
He led runner-up Labonte by more than a lap at the checkers. Controversy erupted the following week after Tim Richmond won at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway.
A post-race inspection revealed fourth-place finisher Labonte had left-side tires mounted on the right side of his Piedmont Airlines Monte Carlo. The Dale Inman-led team was fined $2,000, but held onto the points gained in the race and the top spot in the points.
Sixth-place finisher and pre-race point leader Waltrip objected: “I think it has become obvious that NASCAR doesn’t want me to be the point leader. They knocked me out of it (the point lead),” he charged in the April 11 issue of National Speed Sport News. “They want a different winner every race and a different point champion every year.”
Waltrip rejoined Labonte atop the standings after a hard-fought victory over his rival at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Eleven drivers led through nine cautions, which claimed 18 of the 38 starters before the rain-delayed race concluded. He and Labonte were the only two cars on the lead lap at the finish and were now tied for the point lead.
A First For Petty
Richard Petty also scored a first in NASCAR history in 1984. He became the only Winston Cup driver to earn 200 victories in his career with his victory in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. With President Reagan in attendance, the historic victory came down to a one-lap sprint between Petty and Yarborough.
On lap 158 of the 160-lap race, Doug Heveron spun and flipped, which meant the race would end under caution and the leader of the lap would be the winner. Petty led Yarborough down the backstretch, but Yarborough went low in tum three for the lead and then drifted high in the fourth turn. Petty dived under Yarborough in four and the duo sped down the frontstretch side-by-side.
Under the yellow flag, Petty edged Yarborough by a bumper.
All told, Petty’s 200th victory came in his 944th race and was his 55th triumph on a superspeedway. In those 944 starts, Petty had earned 536 top-five and 644 top-10 finishes.
After Geoff Bodine’s first career victory for rookie team owner Rick Hendrick at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, third place in the same race gave Waltrip the point lead by 74 markers over Labonte, who struggled to a 24th-place finish.
Waltrip held the lead up to the Firecracker 400 with a victory at Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds Speedway and five top-10s before ceding the top spot to Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt held the point lead through six races, including his triumph at Talladega Superspeedway.
Labonte led a 10-car train under the white flag, but Earnhardt and Buddy Baker shot around Labonte in the third tum for the record 75th and final lead change of the afternoon. However, of the top five, only Earnhardt clearly earned his spot. Photos were used to determine Baker edged Labonte for second and Allison beat Yarborough for fourth.
“I saw Dale and Buddy side by side and I really thought things looked great,” said Labonte in the Aug. 1 NSSN. “But then Dale came flying by me on the backstretch and that was it.”
“It was a race of who happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Earnhardt. “It was one of the most exciting races I have ever been in.”
Labonte’s 10th top five of the season at Talladega, edged him closer to Earnhardt in the point chase and his Bristol victory on Aug. 25 put him back on top.
Gant Gives Labonte A Run For His Money
Meanwhile, perennial runner-up Harry Gant had begun a late-season run at Labonte. His second victory of the season in the 35th annual Southern 500 at Darlington moved him from fifth to second in the points. Another victory at Dover Downs Int’l Speedway and 15 consecutive top-10 finishes brought him to within 42 points of Labonte with one race remaining.
Labonte held firm during Gant’s run, steadied by seven-time champion crew chief, Inman, whose approach to winning the championship was race-to-race consistency. “We’re in a war, not a skirmish,” he said after Labonte’s sixth runner-up finish of the season at Martinsville.
The strategy fit Labonte’s conservative approach: “What we were doing was trying not to get into a situation we couldn’t get out of,” said Labonte after his fifth-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I couldn’t even think I had a chance to make it through a tight spot when I got ready to make a move I had to be certain I could make it.”
The 27-year-old Labonte made it to his first Winston Cup championship with a third-place finish in the season-ending Winston Western 500 at Riverside Int’l Raceway. His two victories and 24 top-10 finishes bested Gant and his three victories and 23 top-10s by 65 points in the standings.
“No one man has been responsible for our success,” said Labonte. “It has been a team effort … we were all working toward one goal.”
Other NASCAR award getters included Rusty Wallace as Champion Spark Plug Rookie of the Year and Bill Elliott as the first fan-voted Most Popular Driver. Robbie Crouch beat Randy LaJoie for his fourth NASCAR North Stroh’s Tour title Jim Robinson edged Winston West rookie Derrick Cope for his second-straight title.
In the Busch late model sportsman division, Sam Ard was propelled by 27 top-10s to his second consecutive crown. Other winners included Mike Swaim in the Darlington Dash Series, Richie Evans in the modified division and David Into in the Winston Racing Series.