Cale Yarborough, Winner of 3 Consecutive NASCAR Cup Championships, Dies at 84

Jackson Wheeler
8 Min Read

  • Cale Yarborough, legendary NASCAR racer, passed away today at 84.
  • Yarborough won 83 NASCAR Cup races in 31 years and took the championship in 1976, 1977, and 1978, one of only two drivers to have won three or more consecutive titles.
  • Known as one of the toughest competitors to race in NASCAR, his fight with Bobby and Donnie Allison was broadcast live on TV and is credited with growing the popularity of the sport.

Another motorsports giant has fallen.

NASCAR Hall of Famer and three-time Cup Series champion Cale Yarborough died Sunday morning. He was 84 and had been in declining health for several years.

“Cale Yarborough was one of the toughest competitors NASCAR has ever seen,” chairman Jim France said in a statement released by NASCAR. “His combination of talent, grit and determination separated Cale from his peers, both on the track and in the record book. He was respected and admired by competitors and fans alike and was as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor as he was behind the wheel of a stock car. On behalf of the France family and NASCAR, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Cale Yarborough.”

Yarborough told one of his stories with a certain amount of relish.

After a practice session prior to a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Yarborough was walking to his passenger car in the infield.

“This little kid, maybe 6 or 7, came running up to me,” Yarborough said. “He said, ‘Mr. Yarborough, Mr. Yarborough, you’re my favorite driver. Will you sign my drawing?’

“I said, ‘Sure.’ He handed me the drawing. It had my car, Richard Petty’s car and Bobby Allison’s car on the track. I was third in line. I asked him, ‘Hey, if I’m your favorite driver, why did you draw me in third place?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You’re getting ready to lap them.’ ”

It was a quick save by the kid, but it also could have been true.

William Caleb “Cale” Yarborough lapped more than a few people, even including such giants as Petty and Allison, over a decorated racing career. He won 83 Cup races and three consecutive (1976-78) Cup championships.

Beyond the numbers, which were more than enough to assure his election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame (and similar halls honoring racers), Yarborough built a reputation as one of the toughest drivers in all of motorsports. He drove every lap like the last. Drivers competing against him remember seeing that ferocity in his face as he passed them. He didn’t give out – and he didn’t give up. Asking for a relief driver would have been an awful thing for Yarborough.

He sawed that steering wheel with determination and no fear.

cale yarborough and donnie allison

The legendary fight between Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, and Bobby Allison in the 1979 Daytona 500 happened before a live nationwide TV audience and is said to have spiked interest NASCAR.

RacingOne//Getty Images

Driver Pete Hamilton talked about Yarborough’s drive in a race Cale won at Michigan Speedway. “In those days we didn’t have side glasses or window netting, so you could look over at the other guy going down the straightaway,” Hamilton said. “I remember looking over at Cale. Even at 185 miles per hour, you could see the determination in his eyes.”

Yarborough, who was born in Sardis, South Carolina, grew up with a variety of sports interests, including the loud goings-on at Darlington Raceway near his home. He talked often about climbing under the fence to watch a race at the track, one he would leave flying over the fence in a race car years later.

Testimony to Yarborough’s skill and talent is that he won at tracks large and small. Key numbers: Four Daytona 500 wins. Five Southern 500 wins. Led 21 percent of the laps he raced.

He competed from 1957 to 1988 and later owned a Cup team. He saw the tough times and the high times in NASCAR, and he rose from South Carolina farmland obscurity to international fame. And there was treasure. He eventually bought a 4,000-acre spread near Sardis, built a huge ranch-style home and spent many of his retirement years turning that property into a playground for his grandchildren. That work required skills on slower vehicles – bulldozers and tractors.

cale yarborough

Cale Yarborough won the Daytona 500 in 1968.

RacingOne//Getty Images

Yarborough could have raced longer and more often. Beginning in 1981 and for the last eight years of his driving career, he cut his schedule virtually in half. That decision came after one of his three daughters reminded him that he had promised to repair her bicycle but that he hadn’t done it. That hit him like a two-by-four to the head, he said later, and he became a part-time racer.

Yarborough’s life could have gone in other directions. He was an all-state running back in high school and a fierce Golden Gloves state champion boxer who backed away from no one. He was offered a football scholarship to Clemson University by then coach Frank Howard but had been bitten by the racing bug and declined the university opportunity.

“Son, you’ll starve to death,” Yarborough later quoted Howard as telling him. Many years later, Howard was in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway to share a win with the running back he missed out on.

Yarborough battled issues with his legs late in life and eventually walked with a cane. On a trip to Daytona International Speedway, he sat with his wife, Betty Jo, who had taken the long ride from near-penniless to prosperity with him. Long finished with the racing, he questioned how his body, so durable and rugged for so many years and across so many laps, finally was giving him troubles he found difficult to confront.

He was Yarborough tough to the very end.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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