Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Martinsville’s Boss Guaranteed His Cup Races Were 500 Laps

Don’t really know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but the NOCO 400 NASCAR Cup Series race held Sunday (Apr. 16) was only the second 400-lap event conducted at Martinsville Speedway.

However, if the track’s founder and long-time president, the late Henry Clay Earles, was still with us you may be rest assured that would not be the case.

Earles, who was passionate about his speedway and how it was treated by the sanctioning body, would have never permitted his races to deviate from 500 laps.

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If that had been proposed, Earle’s jaw would stiffen, his eyes would widen, his face would turn red and a finger would shake violently in the face of the unfortunate individual who made such a suggestion.

Believe me, I know. I’ve seen it – more than once.

The first 400-lap race was the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relieve 400 last April, won by William Byron. Kyle Larson was the winner in the second 400-lapper on Sunday.

Now, that Martinsville went to shorter races after so many years is not questioned here. Officials, competitors and fans alike have said such events have a greater opportunity to be more entertaining and exciting – among many other things.

This is a far cry from how it used to be. For a very long time, the number 500 was the benchmark in NASCAR Cup racing. Superspeedways and intermediate tracks staged 500-mile races while most of the short track events, not all, were composed of 500 laps.

Martinsville, at 0.526 miles, was one of those tracks. While Earles made it clear that was the way it was going to stay, not everyone accepted that.

The loudest and most serious complaint about a 500-lap race at Martinsville was voiced in 1977.

It led to a vocal confrontation and added to one of the most noteworthy feuds in NASCAR history.

In 1977, Cale Yarborough was in his fourth year driving for Junior Johnson. He had been vastly successful, piling up victories – he was a titan on the short tracks – and earning his first championship in 1976.

It was Yarborough who fired the first shot that started the feud.

In the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day, Darrell Waltrip, a rising star with the sometimes fractured DiGard Racing Co., was scrapping with Yarborough for the victory.

Both drivers refused to back off and ultimately that led to a pileup that made scrap metal out of five cars. Miraculously, Yarborough finished fifth and Waltrip sixth.

After the race, D.K. Ulrich, one of the victims, approached Yarborough and asked him why he drove into his Chevrolet.

“Cale,” Ulrich said, “you knocked the hell out of me. Was I in the high-speed groove?”

“I didn’t hit you,” Yarborough said. “Jaws hit you.”

“Who?”

“Ol’ Jaws, that’s who. Jaws Waltrip. He knocked you into that wall.”

The nickname stuck. For the next several years, Waltrip was known simply as “Jaws.” All one had to do was say the name and everyone knew who that was.

Three weeks after Darlington, Martinsville staged its Old Dominion 500. That Sunday was one of the hottest and most humid of the summer.

Conditions were so bad many competitors recruited relief drivers before the race – and many of them were used.

Yarborough, one of the toughest drivers ever to put on a helmet, won the race by 0.8 seconds over Benny Parsons. But it wasn’t easy.

Yarborough was exhausted and drained from the heat. He was lifted out of his car, red-faced and his body sweating profusely.

Gasping for air, he said: “Something has to be done. The length of these races has to be cut. It’s getting to the point where driver exhaustion is more dangerous than the racing action.

“This is the worst physical punishment I’ve ever endured.”

Naturally, Yarborough’s words got to Earles. And, naturally, he was not pleased – to say the least.

“Here we are with the short track race that pays more than any other,” Earles said through a clenched jaw. “Yarborough was well compensated for today’s work. I will not shorten my races nor will I as long as I’m alive.

“Martinsville Speedway intends to go forward, not backward.”

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Just a week later, Waltrip pounced. He won the Wilkes 400 at the 0.625-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway – one of the few events of 400 laps or less.

Cool and collected after the race, Waltrip observed: “As far as the race goes, I would rate it about one and one-half to two in degree of difficulty on the ‘Cale Scale.’

“I think Cale’s problem is not the tracks. Maybe it’s his years. Maybe he just can’t do what he used to be able to do.”

At the time, Yarborough was 38 years old, Waltrip 30.

But it was at North Wilkesboro that Yarborough had the last laugh. He finished second to Waltrip and streaked to a 293-point [ultimately 386] lead over Richard Petty in the Cup point standings.

He won the title at Rockingham Speedway with two races remaining in the season. It was his second consecutive championship.

Between them, Waltrip and Yarborough won 15 of the year’s 30 events. Yarborough won his third consecutive championship in 1978.

Ironically, Waltrip replaced Yarborough as Johnson’s driver in 1981 and won three titles himself, although not consecutively.

It’s a good bet neither invited the other to dinner over the course of their careers.

Earles was as good as his word. He passed in 1999. Save for races in NASCAR’s early, formative years, Martinsville conducted nothing less than a 500-lap Cup event during his lifetime.

That remained true until 2022.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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4 Comments
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Dawg

I’m about as die hard a NASCAR fan as you’ll find.

But speaking strictly for myself, 400 laps, including those behind the pace car for the stages, etc. was plenty.

JW Farmer

You must not be as diehard as I am. With technology IMPROVING the reliability of car parts, NASCAR SHOULD be holding races that actually TEST that technology. In the past, the fact that a car could make the entire race without mechanical issues was an important part of a race’s action. Today, instead of basing the sport on what attention deficit techno addicts want, it should return to being the unique sport it once was. Neuter the stage breaks and allow the race to play out as it does, as should the points system. Today’s racing rewards the driver with the QUICKEST spurt of skill versus the man that can “go the distance.”

dawg

As I said, I’m speaking strictly for myself, but the only thing I really found interesting, was that Chastain’s crew made the call to keep him out on 50 lap old tires. And that call gained him 20 positions.

Had that not have happened, I doubt that Logano would have been able to have saved his day.

Beyond that, at least 5 drivers required care for heat related issues. With another 100 laps, they, & possibly others could have wound up in the hospital.

I’m not knocking your take, we just differ, If cars were able to pass, a 500 lap race would hold my interest. But when Logano had to start at the back, & got lapped twice, & was only able to pass 2 cars, that’s another story.

Kevin in SoCal

I’m in the 500 club too.

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