NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Cale Yarborough dies age 84

NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and three-time Cup series champion Cale Yarborough passed away Sunday in Florence, South Carolina in hospice. He was 84.

The South Carolina native made his NASCAR debut in 1957 at Darlington Raceway not far from his home. He would go on to race a limited schedule with his first win coming at Valdosta, Georgia, while driving part-time for Kenny Myler in 1965. His career began to grow with his association with Ford and team owner Banjo Matthews in the mid-1960s. It took off, however, when he signed to race a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers in 1967. He won the first of his four Daytona 500 wins the following season along with five other victories.

Yarborough’s first full time season in NASCAR came in 1973 driving for Chevrolet and owner Richard Howard. That first full-time season saw him score four wins including his second of five at Darlington and finish second in the championship standings. His first title came in 1976 while driving for Junior Johnson.

He would add two more titles in the following seasons, becoming the first driver to win three consecutive championships. Jimmie Johnson, who won four straight Cup series titles from 2006-10, is the only driver to break that record which he did in route to his seven titles.

In 1978 he was involved in a fight at the end of the Daytona 500 after crashing with Donnie Allison on the final lap. The two came to blows on the backstretch in a moment shown live on television as part of the first live 500-mile race broadcast on network TV. It was a moment, and a race, credited by many as starting the growth of NASCAR from a regional to national sport.

Yarborough ran his final fulltime season in 1980 but continued to run a limited schedule until 1988 adding 14 more race wins to his 83 race win career total tying him with Johnson for sixth on the Cup Series’ all-time win list. In all he ran 560 races over a 31-year career.

He would spend the next decade involved in team ownership before retiring to his farm and pursuing other business interests that included restaurants, auto dealerships, textile interests, and dry-cleaning franchises. He made rare appearances in the sport including a surprise visit at the 2008 NASCAR Awards banquet, where he congratulated Jimmie Johnson for tying his three consecutive championship record, and made sporadic appearance at Darlington.

Cale Yarborough was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012.

“Cale Yarborough was one of the toughest competitors NASCAR has ever seen,” Jim France, NASCAR chairman and CEO said in a statement. “His combination of talent, grit and determination separated Cale from his peers, both on the track and in the record book. He was respected and admired by competitors and fans alike and was as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor as he was behind the wheel of a stock car. On behalf of the France family and NASCAR, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Cale Yarborough.”

He is survived by his wife Betty Jo, who he married in 1961, and his three daughters.

Greg Engle