|McDuffie lines up next to Dale Earnhardt's #3 at Daytona's |
filling station, 1991
PHOTO: Mike and Lesley Demers
McDuffie made twenty-three starts in what is now the Can-Am Duels, and qualified for fifteen Daytona 500s. His first SpeedWeeks came in 1969, when he fielded the only Buick on the circuit. An 18th-place finish in the first qualifier scored him 36th on the grid, and he finished 39th when the engine let go short of halfway. He finished last in Race 2 of the 1970 qualifiers – steering issues after four laps – for his only last-place finish in the event. He never finished last in the Daytona 500.
Prior to the accident which took McDuffie’s life, the most serious accidents of his career both happened during SpeedWeeks. In the 1975 Daytona 500, the #70 slowed behind a pileup on Lap 4, but veered hard to the right and smashed head-on into the outside wall. The wreck left him with a fractured breastbone, among other injuries, and kept him in the hospital for more than two weeks. Then, in Race 2 of the 1988 Twin 125s, a collision with two other cars caused his Pontiac to burst into flames. His gloves stolen before the race, McDuffie spent even longer in the hospital, this time with third-degree burns to both hands.
McDuffie’s best finish in the Daytona 500 came in the famous 1976 race. Seven laps behind Richard Petty and David Pearson as they tangled for the win, McDuffie came home seventh. It was not only redemption for his serious crash in the race a year earlier, but was worth $11,260 of the race purse. It was the most he’d earn for a 500 finish until 1982, when an 11th-place finish earned him a track-best $15,235. He also participated in a single “Consolation Race” in 1984, a last-chance qualifier to make the 500 field. After starting outside-pole, he took the lead on Lap 2, but finished 4th of 25 drivers, narrowly missing the cut.
In his final nine attempts, McDuffie made the Daytona 500 just three times. In 1983, he drove an unsponsored Pontiac to a 22nd-place finish in the 35-car grid of his qualifier, squeezing him into the 500 field as the 37th starter out of 42. He finished 29th that day, out with engine trouble. In 1987, with added support of businessman Tom Winkle, he ran 18th out of 30 in his qualifier, putting him 38th on the 42-car grid. This time, he finished under power, 25th at the line, nine laps down to Bill Elliott. His final 500 start came in 1989, when he raced his way in. One year after suffering his burns, McDuffie avoided serious damage in a grinding multi-car accident to finish 15th out of 30 drivers. He lined up 29th and finished 24th, seven laps down, in Darrell Waltrip’s lone 500 win.
Though reaching the close of his career, McDuffie made these three starts despite huge entry lists. 29 drivers were sent home in 1983, including Morgan Shepherd and Rusty Wallace. 19 drivers missed in 1987, including Donnie Allison. Another 19 missed in 1989, including Kyle Petty and Jimmy Means. Petty ended up buying Eddie Bierschwale’s ride while Means’ sponsor Alka-Seltzer jumped on Buddy Arrington’s unsponsored Pontiac driven by Mickey Gibbs.
McDuffie made both qualifying races in 1990 and 1991, but finished just 25th and 21st, respectively. He was one of 19 DNQs in 1990 and one of 16 in 1991. His final qualifier was slowed by one caution, though he managed to finish on the lead lap in the event for the first time in a decade.