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(Dec. 7, 1984) Jacksonville, Fla (AP). LeeRoy Yarbrough, the NASCAR Driver of The Year in 1969, died Friday at University Hospital from internal bleeding in the brain. He was 46 years old.
It was a small acknowledgement in the local paper, a handful of words written by an anonymous hand. There were no accolades bestowed, no fans to mourn his passing, nothing but those few words. In a cruel bit of irony LeeRoy Yarbrough, a man who had risen to the heights of stock car racing, adored by countless fans and admired by his fellow competitors, was now himself anonymous.
Born at a time when hard work and determination was a man’s currency, Yarbrough earned it. Like many youngsters who dreamed of driving fast cars for a living, he sharpened his skills on the short tracks in and around his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. He ventured onto a NASCAR Grand National track for the first time in the inaugural 1960 Atlanta 500. However he didn’t return to NASCAR’s top division until 1962, making 13 starts that year.
Eager to prove his worth, Yarbrough ran Grand National cars for a handful of owners in 1963 and 1964, hoping to get noticed. He captured his first Grand National win on the half-mile dirt track in Savannah, Ga., in May 1964, and followed it up with another win in Greenville, S.C. These victories not only caught the interest of the media, but more importantly the owners of some of the better cars on the circuit.
After watching Yarbrough handle his car on the dirt in Hickory, N.C., legendary driver Junior Johnson knew Yarbrough had talent. However, Johnson didn’t have a car for Yarbrough so he told car owner Ray Fox that he should hire Yarbrough to drive his factory-backed Dodge. Fox heeded Johnson’s advice and when time and money would allow Fox put Yarbrough in a second car as a teammate to two-time series champion Buck Baker.
The 1965 Chrysler factory boycott of NASCAR sidelined the Fox/Yarbrough team most of that season. The 1966 season opened with Yarbrough now wheeling a car for independent owner Jon Thorne. Running a limited schedule Yarbrough earned his first major superspeedway win in only his eighth start with the team, dominating the fall race at Charlotte by leading 301 of 334 laps.
After a short stint with team owner Thorne to open the 1967 season, Yarbrough was hired by future Hall of Fame car owner Bud Moore. However, just six races after taking the seat of the No. 16 Mercury, Yarbrough received a tantalizing offer from an early admirer. Johnson was now a full-time car owner following his retirement from driver duties at the end of the 1966 season. Johnson now had a seat and he hired Yarbrough away from the Moore camp.
This was the opportunity that Yarbrough had been hoping for.
In the first race with his new team Yarbrough brought his Johnson-prepared Ford home in third place. This impressive showing justified Johnson’s belief in his new racer, and he decided Yarbrough would be his primary driver for the 1968 season. By years end the duo had captured two victories and 15 top-five finishes. And they were just getting started.
In 1969 Yarbrough and Johnson would record one of the most impressive Grand National seasons to date. Driving a combination of Ford and Mercury cars, the team took the NASCAR world by storm. They won the 1969 Daytona 500 with a thrilling last lap pass of Charlie Glotzbach. They followed that victory with six more wins that season including the World 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Yarbrough became the first driver to win what would come to be known as the “Triple Crown” of NASCAR, winning the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500 all in the same season.