The 1979 Daytona 500, the 21st annual event, was the second race of the 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) season. It was held on February 18, 1979. Sports pundits consider the 1979 Daytona 500 to be the most important race in stock car history.
The race was televised live beginning to end, a rarity in that era, and the first for a 500-mile race in the United States. Camera angles such as the "in-car" view were introduced to United States racing viewers.
On the final lap of the 500, race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison collided with each other on the Daytona International Speedway's back stretch. Both drivers' races ended in Daytona's grass infield. The wreck allowed Richard Petty, then over one-half lap behind both, to claim his sixth Daytona 500 win.
At the same time Petty made his way to Victory Lane to celebrate, a fight erupted between Yarborough, Donnie Allison, and his brother Bobby at the site of the back stretch wreck. Both events were caught by television cameras and broadcast live.
The 1979 Daytona 500 brought national publicity to NASCAR. Motorsports announcer and editor Dick Berggren said: "Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going. It was the first 'water cooler' race, the first time people had stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before. It took a while – years, maybe – to realize how important it was."
The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first 500-mile race to be broadcast in its entirety live on national television in the United States. Races were shown on television but as an example, the Indianapolis 500 was broadcast on tape delay later in the evening on the day it was run, in this era, and usually in edited form. Most races aired during this period were only broadcast starting with the final quarter to half of the race, as was the procedure for ABC's IndyCar broadcasts on their Wide World of Sports program.
CBS signed a new contract with NASCAR to telecast the race. Ken Squier and David Hobbs were the booth announcers with Ned Jarrett and Brock Yates in the pits for that race, while other angles, such as an interview with race grand marshall Ben Gazzara and NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., were handled by Marianne Bunch-Phelps. The day was fortunate for CBS as a major snowstorm known as the Presidents Day Snowstorm of 1979 bogged down most of the Northeast and parts of the Midwestern United States, increasing the viewership of the event. The race introduced two new innovative uses of TV cameras: The "in-car" camera and the low angle "speed shot", which are now considered standard in all telecasts of auto racing.
Motor Racing Network was broadcasting the race on the radio, and their broadcasters included Jack Arute, Barney Hall, Mike Joy, Gary Gerould (who also hosted prerace ceremonies), and Dick Berggren.
Buddy Baker qualified on the pole, but dropped out on lap 38 with ignition problems causing a misfiring engine. The team had made some minor repairs by welding before the race and it was thought the primary ignition control box had been damaged. During attempts to diagnose and repair the problem, the team switched to the backup box and replaced much of the ignition system, to no avail. When the team returned home after the race, engine builder Waddell Wilson checked and determined that the crewman who had switched to the backup box by unplugging the primary ignition box and plugging into the backup box had in fact, during the chaos, plugged back into the defective primary box. When Wilson switched to the backup ignition box, the car fired in perfect condition.
The rest of the five fastest qualifiers included Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Benny Parsons.
The race started under the yellow flag for 15 laps due to wet track conditions from rain the previous night. This impacted contender Darrell Waltrip, as running at relatively slow speeds on the high banks of the track caused a lack of oil to lubricate the camshaft, resulting in a cam lobe wearing away prematurely and causing the engine to run on seven cylinders for the rest of the race. On the start at Lap 16 Baker fell back and lost the draft; he eventually fell out when his team could not get the engine firing fully. Donnie Allison raced with Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison, but lost control of his car on lap 32 (of 200 laps) and forced Yarborough and Bobby Allison to take evasive action. All three cars spun through the backstretch infield which was slippery and muddy from the rain. Yarborough was forced to repair his car, and fell two laps behind the leader, as did Bobby Allison, while Donnie lost one lap.
Following the yellow, the race swelled into a huge 18-car battle. Neil Bonnett, driving an Oldsmobile, raced into the lead and was challenged by A.J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip; he fought them off but was soon challenged by Bobby Allison, trying to unlap himself, and rookie Dale Earnhardt and dark-horse driver Tighe Scott, driving a Buick Century prepared by Harry Hyde. A six-car crash eliminated David Pearson and others. Then Donnie Allison raced to unlap himself, and did so when Bonnett blew a tire and spun in traffic. Other contenders were eliminated, as Bobby Allison fell multiple laps behind, Harry Gant crashed, Dale Earnhardt over-revved his engine leaving the pits and broke a rocker arm and valve spring, Benny Parsons' car overheated and Scott slid through his pits unable to stop when he hit a puddle of water from Parsons' overheating engine. Past the halfway point Donnie assumed the lead, but Cale Yarborough used more caution flags to make up his laps.
Following green flag stops Donnie Allison took the lead on lap 178 with Yarborough right on his tail. These two cars pulled away during the final laps and led the next closest competitors by half a lap. Donnie Allison took the white flag and was leading the race on the final lap with Yarborough drafting him tightly. As Yarborough attempted a slingshot pass on the backstretch, Allison attempted to block him. Yarborough refused to give ground and as he pulled alongside Allison, his left side tires left the pavement and went into the wet and muddy infield grass. Yarborough lost control of his car and contacted Allison's car halfway down the backstretch. As both drivers tried to regain control, their cars made contact three more times before locking together and crashing into the outside wall in turn three.The cars slid down the banking and came to rest in the infield. Richard Petty, who was over half a lap behind before the incident, went on to win. beating Darrell Waltrip by a car length.
After the wrecked cars of Donnie Allison and Yarborough settled in the infield grass (short of the finish line), the two drivers began to argue. After they stopped arguing, Bobby Allison, who was one lap down at that point, stopped where the wreck was and a fight broke out. With the leaders wrecking near the end of the last lap, the television audience was shown seconds of Petty's win.
The story made the front page of The New York Times Sports section. NASCAR had arrived as a national sport, and began to expand from its Southeastern United States base and become a national sport, shedding its moonshine running roots along the way.
Reactions from Yarborough and the Allisons were, not surprisingly, different. Yarborough said "I was going to pass him and win the race, but he turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back. If I wasn't going to get back around, he wasn't either." Allison said "The track was mine until he hit me in the back," he says. "He got me loose and sideways, so I came back to get what was mine. He wrecked me, I didn't wreck him."
In the aftermath, both Allison brothers and Yarborough were fined. Donnie Allison was put on probation for six months. After further review, Allison's probation was reduced to three months and Yarborough was put on probation for three months as well, as the initial judgment that the wreck was Allison's fault was amended to place blame equally on both Donnie and Cale. $5,000 of their $6,000 fines were returned a thousand dollars at a time over the next five races.
David Hobbs: "The white flag is out, one lap to go. This is it; last lap."
Ken Squier: "Stand by, stand by for a photo finish. Two of the greatest fiddling here, fidgeting with first place, passing some of the stragglers; this is the last lap. Trying to take it home, it's all come down to this. Out of turn two, Donnie Allison in first. Where will Cale make his move?" (Yarborough attempts to slingshot) "He comes to the inside. Donnie Allison throws the block." (The two cars collide and hit the wall) "Cale hits him! He slides! Donnie Allison slides! They hit again! They drive up the turn! They're hitting the wall! They're head onto the wall! They slide down to the inside. Let's watch those third place cars. They're out of it! Who is going to win? Coming down third place, they're coming around for the finish between A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty. Down the back straightaway come the leaders now. Two cars are out. In the backstretch are the leaders, watching for the leaders to come – they're still up in three and four. The leaders are up in turns three and four. Coming down, Richard Petty is now pulling out in front, Darrell Waltrip is in second, A. J. Foyt is in third. Here they come, Waltrip trying to slingshot..." (but Petty blocks him) "...Petty is out in front. At the line..." (the checkered and caution flags wave at the flag stand) "Waltrip to the inside... Petty wins it !! ! Down on pit road it has gone crazy, the Petty crew is out there jumping up and down as Richard Petty has won it."
Hobbs: "Richard Petty has won his 6th Daytona 500 and the crowd here are going absolutely mad!"
Squier: "Well, there he is after a full year without a win as the two leaders tangle in the back straightaway. They threw the block; it didn't work. A.J. Foyt pulls up to congratulate Petty. No matter how hard A.J. fights, when it's over he is a gentleman. Let's look again at that crash." (Square-wipe to a slow motion replay of the Yarborough/Allison crash) "Here it is, they're into the turn already, spinning, sliding. The hopes for Donnie Allison vanish. Cale Yarborough trying to win his third, he's out of it. A sad moment for these people. But for Richard Petty, hurt all of last year, driving most of the year with a broken and battered body, he comes home a winner today after 45 straight losses. We... if we can, we should be down at pit road. Tell the folks in the truck just a moment. It's going to be some scene, just a moment. The 18-year-old son of Richard Petty, Kyle..." (who had just started his racing career) "...out there waiting for his father. They have both, they have both tasted success..." (Kyle had won the Daytona ARCA 200 the previous week. Square-wipe to the finish.) "Here is the finish again, ladies and gentlemen. Richard Petty."
Hobbs: "Darrell Waltrip absolutely fighting that car. He got the left wheels on the flat in the bank, and was really out of control there."
Squier: "And here comes a $60,000 car becoming a 22 passenger school bus to bring his crew to victory lane. Richard Petty, the great master, has just recorded his 186th career -" (Cut to the scene of the crash, where Yarborough and both Donnie and Bobby Allison are fighting) "And there's a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison !! The tempers overflowing; they're angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat."
The race was released on DVD in 2007. The race re-aired on Fox Sports 1 in 2015 hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr with notes on bottom on the screen throughout the entire race.
The race was also the subject of the documentary A Perfect Storm: The 1979 Daytona 500, featuring interviews of CBS Sports commentators and 1979 Daytona 500 drivers.