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NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough, 84, one of the sport’s most successful and grittiest drivers died Dec. 31, NASCAR announced. Yarborough, a South Carolina native, was known for his tenacity and toughness — he was a boxer and semi-pro football player before making the jump to racing — and is one of the most successful drivers in the NASCAR ranks, earning Hall of Fame honors in 2012.

Daytona International Speedway (Wellesenterprises)

Yarborough became the first Cup driver to win three consecutive championships, doing so from 1976-78. He claimed 83 victories in NASCAR’s top division, putting him sixth on the all-time wins list despite only competing full time in a handful of seasons. He captured four Daytona 500 victories. Yarborough was also a key player in one of the sport’s most iconic moments, the 1979 Daytona 500. Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed vying for the win in the final lap, resulting in a post-race brawl between the drivers and Donnie’s brother, Bobby Allision. The flag-to-flag broadcast of the race, and subsequent brawl, helped launch NASCAR into the mainstream.

Additionally, Yarborough served as a NASCAR team owner, competed in several Indianapolis 500 races as a driver, and in the 1981 24 Hours of Le Mans.

An outright legend in his own right, Yarborough also helped launch the career of the sport’s most iconic driver, Dale Earnhardt.

According to Mark Bechtel’s 2010 book, “He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back,” Yarborough helped Earnhardt land his first major Cup Series ride. Bechtel writes team owner Rod Osterlund was looking for a driver to replace Dave Marcis ahead of the 1979 season. Osterlund approached Yarborough for his advice on who he should hire. Osterlund had compiled a list of potential drivers, Bechtel writes, with Earnhardt on the list. Yarborough suggested “the most inexperienced driver” on the list, Earnhardt, who had just a about a dozen NASCAR starts.

The three-time champion’s suggestion didn’t fall on deaf ears. With another recommendation for Earnhardt coming from legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler, Osterlund gave Earnhardt a shot in the penultimate race of the 1978 season. He placed fourth, one spot behind Marcis, at Atlanta. Marcis quit the team following the season finale, and Earnhardt was formally tapped as his replacement for 1979.

Yarborough’s suggestion helped cement Earnhardt’s rapid rise in the NASCAR ranks. The Intimidator drove for Osterlund in 27 races in 1979 in a breakout season. Earnhardt earned his first Cup Series win at Bristol with 11 top-five finishes to capture Rookie of the Year honors.

Earnhardt followed up his rookie campaign with his first Cup championship, still driving for Osterlund, in 1980. He won five races and earned 24 top-10s in 31 races that season. Of course, Earnhardt would go on to become a seven-time champion and among the sport’s most legendary and iconic drivers — along with Yarborough.

Though Earnhardt likely would have come across another opportunity to join full-time NASCAR ranks, and thus become one of its most successful drivers, Yarborough’s recommendation undoubtedly helped expedite the process. It also likely enhanced Earnhardt’s prospects for immediate success, as Osterlund had the financial backing to produce winning cars.

As such, Yarborough can be at least somewhat credited with helping to launch Earnhardt’s legendary career.