Never in the history of NASCAR has there been a tougher competitor than Cale Yarborough. (Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Three-time NASCAR Champion Cale Yarborough lets out a boisterous laugh after he says it, but you can tell he’s dead serious:
“The one thing I can say is Jimmie (Johnson) better be glad I’m not racing with him today.”
And then there’s that laugh – proud, full of memories and genuinely impressed that his three back-to-back championship titles from 1976, ’77 and ’78 are still intact.
When it comes to Jimmie Johnson, who’s edging closer to tying that record, Yarborough admits, there’s a little of himself in there.
“I’ve watched Jimmie,” Yarborough says. “He’s the kind of driver that likes to run up front. That’s the way I drove. I can see a lot of Jimmie in me.”
Yet, despite the two not knowing each other well, Yarborough says Johnson “seems to be an awful nice fella” and would be proud to share his record with him.
“The handwriting’s on the wall. It’s gonna happen,” Yarborough predicts. “I understand that I was Jimmie’s hero when he was growing up, so if he does it more power to him.”
And then the competitor in Cale came out.
“That don’t mean I’m pulling for him,” he says laughing. “But if he does it, I’ll be in good company. I hope he feels the same way.”
But Jimmie Johnson wasn’t the only topic Yarborough talked about during a recent teleconference with the media.
There’s how he picked a career in racing over a football scholarship (Clemson head coach Frank Howard forced him to choose and later became one of his biggest fans). There’s his most memorable moment in racing (winning the 1968 Southern 500 at Darlington). There are the championships and chemistry with team owner Junior Johnson (“We just hit it off at the right time, the right place, did the right things”).
Of course, there’s also the infamous fight with Donnie and Bobby Allison at the 1979 Daytona 500.
“I’ve told that story several million times. I’ll do it again,” he says.
“I had the fastest car and had it set up to where I could slingshot him (Donnie) on the last lap. That may have been a mistake on my part. I should maybe have gone on and passed him, go on and won the race handily. I was trying to make a show out of it. Unfortunately, it really came out to be a show. It was one of the best things (that) ever happened in NASCAR.”
And who won?
“I did,” Yarborough says without hesitation.
But it wasn’t a fair fight.
“One Yarborough against two Allisons – that wasn’t even fair,” he says. “But that’s the way it ended up. We were friends the next day, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
When asked if that scuffle derailed his efforts for a fourth championship, Yarborough is adamant.
“I had decided that I was going to cut back my schedule and spend more time with my family,” he said. “That’s what I did and have never regretted it.
“I would have loved to have won that fourth one, but I felt like I needed to spend more time with my family.
That was more important than a fourth championship.”
Now living on 4,000 acres in little South Carolina community of Sardis, Yarborough says he’s “in heaven.”
As for what he says when asked about the 30 years he’s held the three-time champion title?
“I just tell them I was happy to be able to do it, and happy it lasted as long as it did.”
Cale Talks J.J., The Fight