|SOURCE: John Walczak|
The last-place finish, which came in Yarborough’s 545th start, was his second of the season and the last of his career.
1987 marked Yarborough’s 30th season on the Cup tour, entering the year as one of the sport’s most experienced veterans. He started his first race when he was only 18, coming home 42nd in a field of 50 for the eighth annual Southern 500 at Darlington. He’d have to wait until June 27, 1965 to take his first checkered flag, besting the field by three laps at Georgia’s tiny Valdosta 75 Speedway. But once he signed with the Wood Brothers, then Junior Johnson, he was never far from victory lane.
From 1967 through 1985, Yarborough scored another 82 victories, including a pair of 10-win seasons in 1974 and 1978. The ‘78 campaign capped an unprecedented streak of championship dominance where he became the first driver to score three consecutive titles, a feat unmatched until 2008 by Jimmie Johnson. He won four Daytona 500s, becoming just the second driver to win them in consecutive years in 1983 and 1984, racked-up a season-record 14 poles in 1980, and took five checkered flags in the Southern 500 between 1968 to 1982.
Yarborough’s longevity was largely due to his tenacious driving style, which also accounted for his number of last-place finishes. Four times, he led laps early before engine failures or crashes left him at the back of the pack. Eight times, he’d finished last after starting in the Top 10. He’d also scaled-back to a partial schedule in 1981, when he signed with M.C. Anderson to drive the #27 Valvoline Buick, and ran 16 of the 29 races each year after, preferring the larger speedways of Daytona, Atlanta, Rockingham, Darlington, Charlotte, Pocono, Talladega, and Michigan. Throughout his career, Yarborough won no fewer than twice at each track, accounting for 44 of his 83 career wins.
1987 was also a big year for Yarborough, who became an owner-driver for the first time in his career. The familiar red-and-white Hardee’s Chevrolets and Fords he’d driven for Harry Ranier since 1983 had become his trademark, and he brought the sponsor and paint scheme with him to Cale Yarborough Motorsports. For ‘87, the veteran would run a #29 Oldsmobile in place of Ranier’s #28, and again run his 16-race scheduled on NASCAR’s larger tracks. He began the year strong, finishing 10th in the Daytona 500, and by summer earned a 4th at Pocono and a 5th at Talladega, but he was still searching for an 84th win. The 1986 season, his last with Ranier, was Yarborough’s first without a win since 1972. As the series rolled into Michigan, where Yarborough had won eight times previous, he looked for a turnaround. His #29 had managed just 33rd there in June, sidelined by brake issues.
Winning the pole that weekend at Michigan was rookie driver Davey Allison, who took the controls of Yarborough’s old Ranier ride. It was already the third career pole for Allison, who had also claimed his first two victories at Talladega and Dover. “Psychologically, the pole is worth a lot,” said Allison in an interview with the Gadsden Times, “It gives our team a lot of confidence because we’re not a team that tricks things up for qualifying. When we put our car on the pole, it’s on the polein race st-up and we know we’re going to be all right on race day.” Allison’s #28 Havoline Ford put up a lap of 170.705mph. Yarborough could only manage 32nd.
Nine drivers failed to qualify for the Champion Spark Plug 400, including Texas owner-driver H.B. Bailey, who made 12 starts at the two-mile track, Jocko Maggiacomo, and Eddie Bierschwale. Also sent home was 34-year-old Tennessee native Rickey Hood, whose only two Cup attempts were both 1987 races at Michigan in the #38 Solar Sources Ford.
Starting last on Sunday was Greg Sacks, who after DiGard Racing closed now drove the #50 Valvoline Pontiac for the Dingman Brothers. Two years after his lone Cup win at Daytona, Sacks was also attempting the same 16-race superspeedway schedule as Yarborough, but had faced even greater struggles. Coming into Michigan, he’d run no better than 20th and failed to finish seven of his ten starts. Ironically, this day at the races would see Sacks earn a season-best run of 19th, two laps down to race winner Bill Elliott. Yarborough, however, would be out early with engine trouble.
Engine troubles accounted for four of the DNFs in the Bottom Five. Three laps after Yarborough’s exit, Dale Jarrett, 84 points behind Allison in the Rookie of the Year standings, lost the motor on Eric Freedlander’s #18 Chevrolet. Next was Derrike Cope, less than three years from his Daytona 500 victory, whose #19 Stoke Racing Ford fell out after 43 laps. 37th went to owner-driver Jimmy Means, his #52 Eureka Vacuum Cleaners Chevrolet knocked-out by engine woes after 65 laps. A transmission failure rounded out the Bottom Five when New York driver Charlie Rudolph’s #04 Sunoco Chevrolet retired after 68 laps. It was Rudolph’s fourth and final Cup start.
That day at Michigan also marked the 185th and final Cup start for Tim Richmond. The third-place points man from the previous season was fast becoming one of the best drivers on the circuit when he was unexpectedly sidelined for the first part of the 1987 season. Weakened by what was originally called “double-pneumonia,” Richmond returned to the series in June and won back-to-back races at Riverside and Pocono. But by Michigan, his condition had worsened, so much so that he had to be carried by golf cart to the qualifying line. He started 25th in his #25 Folger’s Coffee Chevrolet, but ended up 29th after a blown engine with 51 laps to go. Two weeks later, Hendrick Motorsports issued a statement that, due to a “nagging cold,” Richmond wouldn’t return to defend his victory in the 1986 Southern 500. Less than two years later, the 34-year-old succumbed to AIDS.
In 1988, Yarborough would start to put Dale Jarrett in his #29 for a handful of races. Jarrett’s best run of 1988 came in Yarborough’s car at Riverside, where he came home 8th. Yarborough made his final Cup start at Atlanta, going out with a 10th-place finish, the 319th Top Ten of his career. Now the team’s full-time driver, Jarrett earned a pair of 5th-place runs at Martinsville and Phoenix in 1989. Yarborough remained active as a team owner through the 1999 season, scoring a lone Cup win in the 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona with driver John Andretti. His final driver, Rick Mast, ran the entire ‘99 season without a single DNF.
*This marked Yarborough’s first and only last-place finish in a Cup race at Michigan, a track where he won eight times in 36 starts.
*It was also the first - and so far, only - last-place finish for the #29 in a Cup race at Michigan. The number hasn’t trailed a Cup race since September 15, 1996, when Chad Little’s Cartoon Network Chevrolet crashed after 3 laps of the MBNA 500 at Dover.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #29-Cale Yarborough / 22 laps / engine
39) #18-Dale Jarrett / 25 laps / engine
38) #19-Derrike Cope / 43 laps / engine
37) #52-Jimmy Means / 65 laps / engine
36) #04-Charlie Rudolph / 68 laps / transmission