- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough sat next to each other yesterday, maybe the perfect pairing for NASCAR’s celebration of the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

The two former series champions were at the center of an on-track brawl in 1979, the one in which Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Allison were kicking, swinging and scuffling at the end of NASCAR’s first live, flag-to-flag televised race.

The fight sparked more interest than ever before in the sport.

Nearly 30 years later, Yarborough and Bobby Allison joined nearly two dozen Daytona 500 winners brought together by NASCAR before the Great American Race.

“They are the men that built this sport. They created this great event,” said NASCAR board member Jim France, the brother of late NASCAR chairman and CEO Bill France Jr. “Their actions over the years have established the history of this place.

“If my brother was here today, he would say, ‘They built it, they did a [heck] of a job and don’t [mess] it up guys.’ ”

The former Daytona 500 winners played a key role in a daylong tribute to five decades of racing at NASCAR’s most famous track, a 2½-mile superspeedway that helped the sport become a national draw.

The winners, including Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Junior Johnson, collectively gave the command for drivers to start their engines.

Three former champions were missing during the prerace drivers’ meeting: Darrell Waltrip was working as a television analyst; David Pearson had an emergency; and seven-time race winner Richard Petty had another engagement.

Petty later joined them trackside and dropped the green flag to start the race.

NASCAR president Mike Helton recognized the former champions, who received a standing ovation in the drivers’ meeting, then credited the France family for how much the sport has grown in 50 years.

“A lot can happen in 50 years, and it can be good, or it can go away from you,” Helton said. “We’re very fortunate to have had leadership and foresight to keep the Daytona 500 growing and build it into one of [biggest] spectacles in all of entertainment and sports.”

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