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On This Date in Sports February 18, 1979: Brawl at Daytona

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The first Dayton 500 broadcast live on television features the most dramatic finish in the race's 20-year history. Donnie Allison and Calle Yarborough were locked in a duel and were a half-lap ahead of the rest of the field. Nearing the finish, the two crash and spin out in the infield, allowing Richard Petty to take the checkered flag. As Petty celebrates his sixth title, Yarborough and Allison fight near their wrecked cars.

The 1979 Daytona 500 was the day NASCAR emerged from the shadows and became a national sport. Previously it had been the most regional of niche sports, with few people outside of the American South following it. At the time, Indy Car was far more popular, as NASCAR’s coverage was limited to small highlight packages on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. However, NASCAR President Bill France Sr. reached a deal with CBS to broadcast the entire Daytona 500 in 1979, bringing the racing circuit that was once run by Moonshine Runners exposure to the whole country.

The timing could not be better for NASCAR, as a major snowstorm left many in the Northeast homebound, giving them nothing better to do than watch the Great American Race, which was celebrating its 20th Anniversary. At the time, NASCAR was a sport in transition. Richard Petty was still the most prominent name, as he was coming back from a lost 1978 season. At the age of 41, he was in the twilight of his career, which had seen him win five of the first 20 Daytona 500s. Meanwhile, it was the first Daytona 500 for a brash rookie named Dale Earnhardt, who, after years of toiling on the smaller circuits in the Carolinas, finally was on the grand stage full-time.

The race seemed to belong to Donnie Allison, who was in the lead for nearly half the race and was seeking his first victory in the Daytona 500. However, the stage for the bad blood that would highlight the fight was set when Cale Yarborough bumped Bobby Allison, Donnie’s brother putting both drives two laps down in the race's early stages. Bobby Allison, who was seeking to repeat his 1978 title, would never get back in the race as Calle Yarborough, who used a series of cautions to get back on the lead lap, seemed to have the best car in the race, as he was seeking his third checkered flag in the Great American Race.

As the race entered the final lap, all eyes were on Donnie Allison and Calle Yarborough as they were a half lap ahead of the rest of the field. Coming out of turn two, the two front-runners were side by side, fighting to block each other as they raced to the finish line. The furious, aggressive driving would lead both leaders to spin into the infield. Meanwhile, Richard Petty, who was in third place, suddenly was in the lead, battling Darrell Waltrip for the finish, winning by a car length.

As Richard Petty celebrated his sixth Dayton 500 victory, Bobby Allison pulled over to check on his brother, who had settled in the infield with his rival. With Calle Yarborough and Donnie Allison finishing behind Petty, an argument ensued, wildly after Yarbrough threw a punch at Bobby Allison. This led Donnie Allison and his brother Bobby to begin fighting Yarborough, putting an exclamation point on the race’s dramatic finish. All three drives would receive fines, though the fight would have a positive impact on the sport that nobody could see coming.

The fight and the race became national news, helping the popularity of NASCAR explode. The 1979 season would see Richard Petty win the final of his record seven Winston Cup titles, as Dale Earnhardt, who finished eighth in his first run in the Daytona 500, was named Rookie of the Year. Earnhardt one day would equal Petty’s seven Winston Cup titles though it took 20 years to win his first Dayton 500 in 1998. Petty would win the Great American Race one more time in 1981. Calle Yarbrough meanwhile won the Daytona 500 in 1983 and 1984, his third and fourth checkered flags. Bobby Allison who win again in 1982 and 1988, while Donnie Allison never was able to win the Daytona 500.