LOOKING BACK: Dale Earnhardt’s First Cup Win

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LOOKING BACK: Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt won his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1979. (NASCAR photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: With a lack of racing on-track due to the recent coronavirus pandemic around the globe, SPEED SPORT is digging into the archives and reflecting on notable races from the past.

Today, we look back on the 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Southeastern 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, which marked the first win for a now-NASCAR Hall of Famer.

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Dale Earnhardt became the first rookie to win a NASCAR Winston Cup race since 1974 by outdueling NASCAR’s best to post a $19,800 victory in the 19th annual Southeastern 500 at Bristol Int’l Raceway on April 1, 1979.

The victory in Rodney Osterlund’s Chevy not only gave the 27-year-old second-generation driver the biggest paycheck of his career, but also gave the Osterlund team a shot at over $200,000 in guarantees throughout 1980 under NASCAR’s Winner’s Circle program.

Earnhardt, who led for a total of 164 laps, took the lead for good with 24 laps remaining and pulled away from point leader Bobby Allison in the Hodgdon Thunderbird and a fading Darrell Waltrip in the Gatorade Chevy to ice the victory as 26,000 fans looked on.

Allison passed Waltrip with five laps remaining to finish second, while Waltrip held on for third. The first three drivers were on the lead lap.

Richard Petty’s STP Chevy was fourth, two laps down, and Benny Parsons’ Valleydale Meats Olds came home fifth.

The last rookie winner on the NASCAR Winston Cup trail was Canadian Earl Ross, who won the 1974 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Va., on his way to Rookie of the Year honors.

The race was hotly contested throughout as polesitter Buddy Baker, who set a new qualifying record of 111.668 mph in his Spectra Oldsmobile, led the first 138 laps and held off challenges by Waltrip, Donnie Allison, J.D. McDuffie and Earnhardt until McDuffie brought out the first caution flag on lap 138 when he spun coming off turn four.

Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Earnhardt alternated in the lead for the next 336 laps before Mike Potter spun with 28 laps remaining to set up the final pit stops and the three-way battle to the finish.

At that point, new crew chief Jake Elder got Earnhardt out of the pits before Waltrip and Allison. On the restart, Earnhardt pulled away as Allison ran down and passed Waltrip.

Earnhardt’s margin of victory was 2.7 seconds. The speed of the race was 91.033 mph.

“I just can’t believe it,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “My crew got me in and out of the pits all day and there at the end it won me the race. The addition of crew chief Jake Elder has made this team a winner.”

The Southeastern 500 was Elder’s third race as crew chief on the Osterlund car. Elder left the Baker team after a brief stint at the beginning of the season.

Baker’s chances of victory ended on lap 210 as he and Cale Yarborough collided trying to get around a slower car.

Both drivers were eliminated from the event due to the resulting damage, although Yarborough’s team led by Junior Johnson did make an unsuccessful attempt to fix the Busch Oldsmobile so it could finish the event.

Osterlund is expected to sign a contract with NASCAR before Sunday’s race at Darlington, S.C., to enroll his team in NASCAR’s Winner’s Circle program.

The plan is designed to encourage winning car owners to support all 31 events on NASCAR’s Winston Cup schedule.

The option, made possible by Earnhardt’s victory, will mean an additional $3,200 above any earnings for the team in every race which is 400 miles or more in length for the rest of the season and next year.

The team will receive $2,450 in the Winner’s Circle “appearance money” for races under 400 miles long.

Earnhardt’s victory is even more profitable when the First National City Travelers Checks Rookie of the Year money is considered.

With the extra 10 points for winning, Earnhardt now leads Joe Millikan by five points in the chase for the title, worth $10,000 at the end of the year plus $1,000 per race next year.

This season might be the year in which rookies outshine the veterans. Presently Earnhardt is fifth in Winston Cup points, sandwiched between veterans Benny Parson and Donnie Allison. Joe Millikan is presently seventh in points, ahead of Daytona king Richard Petty.

The finish:

Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, Donnie Allison, Terry Labonte, Joe Millikan, James Hylton, Ricky Rudd, Richard Childress, D.K. Ulrich, Buddy Arrington, Roger Hamby, Cecil Gordon, Mike Potter, Dave Marcis, Tommy Gale, Baxter Price, Frank Warren, Harry Gant, Dick Brooks, Ronnie Thomas, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, J.D. McDuffie, Dick May, Jimmy Means, Bobby Wawak, Ralph Jones.