Since 1960, there have been three major races that have been on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar.
One was the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the year, Along with the NTT IndyCar Series’ Indianapolis 500, it is one of two classic events traditionally on Memorial Day weekend.
The other, the ultimate test of man: the Southern 500, the most challenging track and the most challenging race. At one point, the great tradition was moved to May, before coming back to its customary Labor Day weekend event in the mid-2010s.
And then there is the Daytona 500. The fastest and richest event on the calendar, far and away the biggest race of the year in North America.
To win one of these races is a dream come true for any driver. To win multiple or even all three in a career is something unthinkable.
To win all three in a single year is almost impossible.
In the build-up to the 1969 Daytona 500, no driver had even won all three in a career yet. The legendary superspeedway stars of the 1960s, drivers such as Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen, had failed to win at least one of them.
Junior Johnson had been one of them, only notching a Daytona 500 win in an otherwise incredible career. Since retiring from driving, Johnson had turned to focusing on building and managing his race team.
In 1968, Johnson hired LeeRoy Yarbrough to drive for him. Yarbrough, no relation to fellow driver and close friend Cale Yarborough, had won a couple of big races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway but hadn’t prevailed in any of the three big ones yet. Yarbrough was retained for the ride in 1969.
The 1969 Daytona 500 marked the 10-year anniversary of the very first Daytona 500. At that point, the first 500 was still hailed as the best iteration of the race, as it ended with a close finish between Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty.
Petty seemed to win the race, but track/NASCAR owner Bill France refused to confirm the finish until the film reel had been developed three days later. The close finish and days of deliberation helped to build the mystique of Daytona and helped it to pass all the others on the NASCAR circuit almost immediately in terms of prestige.
But in the years since, the Daytona 500 had largely been a snooze fest. Usually either Ford or Chrysler had a humongous advantage that allowed their premier drivers to turn the races into track meets.
1969 didn’t look so different at first. The Fords seemed to have the advantage throughout the early race, with Yarborough and reigning champion David Pearson enjoying strong runs on the limited television broadcast.
Ford had been able to pull off the most shocking coup in NASCAR’s short history, luring Richard Petty to the Blue Oval for 1969. But Petty was largely a non-factor in the race, and Dodge was able to hold firm as the race went on.
Near the end of the race, it came down to a Ford and a Dodge. Yarbrough’s Ford lost the lead with 23 laps to go to the Dodge of Charlie Glotzbach.
As the laps ticked off, Yarbrough stayed steady with Glotzbach, the top two the only cars on the lead lap. With four laps to go, Yarbrough was two seconds behind Glotzbach as per the ABC broadcast of the race.
The next lap, Yarbrough took advantage of a draft off the lapped car of Buddy Baker and closed to within 1.2 seconds. Two laps to go and Yarbrough had closed up to Glotzbach’s draft as he was just eight tenths of a second off the leader.
Glotzbach took the white flag as the leader, but Yarbrough would not be denied. He drafted down Glotzbach on the backstretch, then passed him on the inside entering turn 3.
Glotzbach wasn’t giving up, however, scooting down to the inside line exiting turn 4. Yarbrough swerved and blocked Glotzbach all the way to the checkered flag.
It was the first, but definitely not the last, Daytona 500 to be decided by a last-lap pass.
It was the start of an impossible year for Yarbrough, as he won the Daytona 500 and then the World 600. Nobody had won two of the three in a single season.
Then, in September, Yarbrough was able to finish the job and won the Southern 500. Yarbrough was the first driver to have pulled that feat off in a career, and he had done it in the same season.
To this day, winning all three in a season is an extremely rare accomplishment. It has only happened two more times in history; Pearson in 1976, and Jeff Gordon in 1997.
But Yarbrough was the first, and he did it in style at Daytona.
About the author
Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.