Throughout his storied racing career, Cale Yarborough has had quite a love affair with the racing facility now known as Atlanta Motor Speedway, collecting seven Atlanta victories with five different car owners in NASCAR's Cup Division. At one point, the South Carolina native won three out of five races at Atlanta International Raceway.
But as the series headed into Hampton in the fall of 1980, Yarborough, locked in a championship battle with Dale Earnhardt, needed a big day at Atlanta, having not won there in six seasons.
Yarborough broke through in a big way, dominating in large fashion to win the 1980 Atlanta Journal 500 behind the wheel of the No. 11 Busch Chevrolet owned by Junior Johnson. Just how dominant was Yarborough that day? Consider this – other than Yarborough, no driver led more than 14 laps. Yarborough led 269 of a possible 328 laps, with polesitter Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker each leading 14 circuits.
Baker went on to finish fourth. Allison, on the other hand, saw his hopes of winning end early as a result of being involved in a crash just 16 laps into the race, ending his day. Allison wasn't the only strong qualifier seeing his day fade. A young Bill Elliott started on the outside of the front row before going on to finish 18th.
That flung the door open for Yarborough, and he took advantage, leading most of the race to win by a final margin of more than two seconds ahead of Neil Bonnett after qualifying in the No. 12 position. Championship points leader Dale Earnhardt, driving the No. 2 car out of the Rod Osterlund Stable, finished third with Terry Labonte finishing fifth.
Interestingly enough, the ninth place finisher that day was Richard Childress behind the wheel of the No. 3 car, a number that would later belong to Earnhardt as he and Childress would later team up for six Cup championships at Richard Childress Racing.
Earnhardt's top five finish helped him solidify his hopes of a championship in 1980. Despite the dominating win, Yarborough left Atlanta trailing Earnhardt by 29 points in the points standings, enough of a cushion for Earnhardt to edge Yarborough to win the title by 19 points a week later at Ontario Speedway for Earnhardt's first championship.
For Yarborough, it was his final race at Atlanta with Junior Johnson in a season that turned out to be his final one competing on a full-time schedule. Any effect of the change wasn't evident the following spring at Atlanta with his win driving the car entered by M.C. Anderson. He won for the seventh and final time of his career in the spring of 1983, wheeling the Harry Ranier Hardee's sponsored car into the Victory Lane. All told Yarborough won seven times at Atlanta for five different car owners.
Atlanta Motor Speedway's history is filled with legends. Be here on Labor Day to see today's legends of NASCAR race under the lights with three nights of night racing!