Parsons' title came from perseverance in frantic finale

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No race defined Benny Parsons' career or character more than the 1973 Winston Cup finale at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.

Parsons entered the race with a 194.35-point lead over Richard Petty, the two-time defending Cup champion. All he had to do was stay out of trouble and record a decent finish and the championship would be his.

Trouble found him.

On Lap 13, Johnny Barnes spun and wound up in the direct path of the points leader, who started fifth. The collision was so violent that it ripped off the entire right side of Parsons' familiar No. 72 car, including a large piece of the roll cage.

"My heart sank because we had everything there to fix the car except rollbars," Parsons later said when recalling his greatest memories of the sport. "I was just sick. I knew I was going to lose the championship. We neglected to put a wrecker on standby, so we lost four or five valuable minutes getting the car to the garage.

"We looked at the damage and said, 'It's over.' "

But Parsons and his crew didn't give up. They cut the rollbars out of another car that failed to make the field. They got help from other teams, many wanting to keep Cale Yarborough from winning the title.

An hour and 15 minutes later, on Lap 136, Parsons re-entered the race in what he called his "air-conditioned modified." He completed 308 of 492 laps and finished 28th to beat Yarborough by 67.15 points.

"It was a sad day for me but a great day for Benny," said Junior Johnson, who owned Yarborough's car. "The car was tore up very, very badly. Ninety-nine percent of the people would have packed up and gone home.

"But determination is what it's all about, and Benny was very determined in whatever he did."

Tuesday was another sad day for Johnson as he recalled that moment. Parsons, 65, died six months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

"He was one of the best people, best spokesman for NASCAR, that you could ever get," said Johnson, who grew up not far from Parsons in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

"He just loved racing and lived it the way he thought it ought to be lived. He had a good life driving in it and a good life in the television end of it."

Yarborough, retired and living in South Carolina, agreed.

"He was a great competitor," he said. "He was a guy that had a never-give-up attitude in anything he did."

Because of that attitude at "The Rock" in 1973, Yarborough had to wait three more years before collecting the first of his three Cup titles.

"It was a letdown for me when I saw him come back on the track," said Yarborough, who finished third in the race behind David Pearson and Buddy Baker. "I figured I had [the title] won.

"But if I was going to lose the championship, I was glad it was to Benny. It couldn't have happened to a nicer fellow."

Bobby Allison, who finished seventh in the championship that year, said Parsons was the "ultimate gentleman in racing."

"Ned Jarrett gets a lot of credit for that," Allison said. "Benny was at least on par with him. He was just a real positive guy, even in his last days. I talked to him a few weeks ago and he was pretty sick, but nobody knew it because he kept that smile on his face."

Allison never saw a bigger smile than the one Parsons had after escaping North Carolina Speedway with the title.

"It would be real easy for the people to fix a car like that in today's world," he said. "That was really a feat back then."

Parsons, who went on to become a top broadcaster in NASCAR, later said one of his fondest memories was watching the fans stand in a wave effect as he returned to the track after the wreck.

"Watching that was incredible," he recalled.

It shouldn't have been surprising. Parsons had few if any enemies on or off the track. Neither Yarborough nor Allison recalled being involved in an incident with him.

Neither remembered being ticked off by something Parsons said on television.

"I don't know that Benny had a rivalry with anybody," Yarborough said. "He was just that kind of a fellow. I wish there were more like him."

So does Johnson, even if Parsons did cost him a title.

"I was pretty sure I was going to get one," he said. "Hard work and determination is what it's all about in racing. That's what it was all about for Benny.

"They could have just said, 'Well, that's the end of it.' But they didn't give up. You can accomplish a lot in life when you don't give up, and Benny accomplished a lot."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.