Richmond Lore: Rudd’s Heartwarming Victory In 1984

One of the most improbable and heartwarming victories in the history of Richmond International Raceway came on Feb. 26, 1984.

On that day, Ricky Rudd drove through the pain of a beaten and bruised body to win the Miller High Life 400. He sustained his injuries in a frightening crash in the Busch Clash at Daytona two weeks earlier.

Given his injuries Rudd should have never raced at Richmond. Fact is, if the race had been held today, NASCAR would not have let him.

But that he did compete, and won, brought Rudd immeasurable respect from fans, fellow competitors and media alike.

It’s not that Rudd hadn’t earned respect beforehand.

When he first broke into NASCAR Winston Cup competition in 1975, Rudd was an 18-year-old, curly-haired, baby-faced kid from Chesapeake, Va. For folks to see a driver like him was highly unusual over three decades ago. It’s pretty much commonplace now.

Rudd raced for his family-owned team, which, as you might suspect, wasn’t on solid financial ground.

After a couple of seasons, Rudd’s racing efforts dwindled and reached a point where they would cease altogether if funding could not be found.

Rudd caught a break, if briefly. Fellow Virginian Junie Donlavey, a long-time team owner from Richmond, hired Rudd to drive for him in 1979.

The association lasted only a year and Rudd was back on a part-time schedule in 1980.

In 1981, Rudd was hired by DiGard Racing Co. to be Darrell Waltrip’s replacement.

Waltrip hadn’t been happy with his association with DiGard for some time but could not break his contract. He finally bought it out so he could race for Junior Johnson.

Rudd was also caught in the iron web that was a contract, created by DiGard’s president, Bill Gardner.

Rudd toughed it out for two years. He didn’t win a race, but did capture three pole positions.

Then in 1982, Rudd again caught a break, this one more significant. He became Richard Childress’ driver and the man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.

In 1981, Earnhardt left Rod Osterlund’s team after Osterlund sold out to J.D. Stacy. Earnhardt wanted no part of Stacy. He, and sponsor Wrangler, thus joined Childress for the latter part of the season.

At the end of the season, Childress knew that he didn’t quite have the tools to enable Earnhardt to win – and told the driver so.

Earnhardt and Wrangler moved to Bud Moore’s Ford team.

To stay in existence Childress had to find a competent driver and a sponsor. He got both in Rudd and Piedmont Airlines.

Over two seasons, 1982-1983, Rudd and Childress won two races, had13 finishes among the top five and 27 among the top 10. They also won six pole positions.

History has since recorded that those two seasons were turning points in both Childress’ and Rudd’s careers.

Then, in 1984, something happened that hadn’t happened before or since.

Wrangler agreed to shift its sponsorship back to Childress, with whom Earnhardt would reunite.

At the same time, Wrangler agreed to retain its backing of the Moore team, for which Rudd would drive.

At the start of 1984, Wrangler sponsored two teams. The drivers had simply switched rides.

Now, that was darn unusual, to say the least.

The Busch Clash at Daytona – a race reserved for pole winners only – was held on Feb. 12, a week before the Daytona 500. It was the first race for Rudd in the Moore Ford.

Rudd completed just 15 laps before he slid along the short chute coming out of the fourth turn.

Plowing through the grass his car caught an air pocket and flipped violently seven times.

Not long after the incident it was reported that Rudd was bruised but otherwise not badly hurt.

That was not the case.

He had suffered a concussion and severely injured ribs. His eyes were so swollen they had to be taped open in order for him to race in the Daytona 500.

Which, remarkably, he did – and finished seventh.

That would not have happened today. NASCAR would not have allowed Rudd to compete. In 1984, however, it had no idea of the extent of Rudd’s injuries – or at least it took the word from “officials” that the driver was OK.

Rudd showed up at Richmond with blackened, bloodshot eyes. He had been provided with a flak jacket to protect his ribs. Given he had sustained a concussion, he probably had a bad headache.

But there was no doubt he was going to race.

Rudd bided his time for most of the event. But in the closing stages he charged forward to pass Waltrip with 20 laps to go. Rudd won by 3.2 seconds.

Fans cheered Rudd’s astonishing achievement loudly. There were 28,000 of them – nearly a full house at Richmond at the time.

It proved Rudd might be diminutive in size, but he was huge in courage and determination.

He went on to have a very successful career that ended in 2007.

Later in 1984, after NASCAR belatedly received all the details about Rudd’s injuries, the sanctioning body instituted a policy to medically examine all drivers involved in wrecks to assure they would be ready to race the next week.

It’s been refined, of course, but the policy stands to this day.


Raikkonen Faster Than You Thought: Inside Scoop

Kimi Raikkonen’s test at Gresham Motorsports Half Mile track was as fast as the best, but he needed a faster track more like Charlotte. Inside sources say that he was much faster at Rockingham than anyone thought and that the team was astonished. The term “The Real Deal” was used many times.

Richmond Is Old But It Has Been “New” For Years

What was once known as Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway became a part of NASCAR in 1953. That makes it the third-oldest track in the sanctioning body’s history, behind Martinsville and Darlington.

At that time, Darlington was a one-mile paved track created by Harold Brasington, a man who envisioned for South Carolina something close to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Darlington was never close to Indy, but it was unique, and remains so to this day.

Martinsville and Richmond started out as half-mile dirt tracks.

In time both converted to asphalt. Richmond did so in the fall of 1968, many years after Martinsville, which was paved in the autumn of 1955.

For many years, when it came to growth, modernization and additional amenities, Darlington and Richmond lagged behind Martinsville – which was always somewhat more progressive under the guidance of its headstrong owner, the late H. Clay Earles.

But, in time, Richmond metamorphosed into something few could have expected, and on a scale that few could have imagined.

One who did was Paul Sawyer.

As I grew to know him, I learned that the late Sawyer, the man who directed Richmond’s fortunes, was always forceful and passionate about his track.

He once threatened to whip my butt after I wrote that his speedway, with steel guardrails instead of concrete walls, was little more than a death trap.

But Sawyer was smart enough to know that his track, and as humble as it was, could not survive without changes.

Many of us wondered what he could do. We assumed – again, assumed – he was still supervised by the authorities of the Virginia State Fairgounds.

Perhaps it was the force of Sawyer’s will. Maybe it was Virginia’s recognition that a major, redesigned track on fairgrounds property would be far more lucrative than a bull ring.

It doesn’t really matter. In the fall of 1988, Richmond was dramatically altered. Instead of a 0.542-track, it became a 0.75-mile facility.

Seats and VIP boxes were added. The garage area, press box and media center expanded. Tunnels allowed vehicles and people to pass unimpeded.

In 1991, the second Richmond race of the season was the first held under new lights and was won by Harry Gant.

Eight years later both of Richmond’s two events were held at night, as they are to this day.

What makes all of this significant is this: While many tracks have grown and altered themselves over the years, Richmond went at least one step further.

It not only added amenities, but it also changed the length and shape of its racing surface.

Today, it’s the only 0.75-mile track on the NASCAR Cup circuit. It is unique.

And it has all paid off. Richmond races are popular among fans and competitors alike, simply because the style of racing combines short-track action with a sizable amount of big-track speed.

Competitors will tell you there’s room to race, room to pass.

Here’s a piece of Richmond – and NASCAR – lore.

The first race at the “new” Richmond track, now 0.75-mile, was held on Sept. 11, 1988. That was the year of the “tire wars” between Goodyear and Hoosier.

After qualifying for the Cup race, crewmen turned out in force to see what would happen in the Saturday 200-mile Nationwide Series race – and for a good reason.

Every car in that event was shod with Hoosier tires. The Cup teams wanted to know how they would hold up.

The answer was: not much. Tire wear was so obvious that Cup guys dashed into the garage area and wheezed, “We gotta run Goodyears!”

Which the teams did. However, those that changed after qualifying on Hoosiers had to drop to the rear of the field, per NASCAR rules, before the Miller High Life 400 began.

It looked like a massive exodus from front to back.

To give you an idea of the enormity of the transition, Alan Kulwicki, who qualified second, started the race in the 31st position. He was part of what looked like a retreating army.

Davey Allison, then driving for Harry Ranier, was cagey. He started the first six laps on Hoosiers, built up a sizable lead and then pitted for Goodyears.

He led most of the laps and won the race by 3.37 seconds over Dale Earnhardt.

That race was, at the least, a most interesting debut for the new Richmond.

Much has happened since, of course.

We can expect more from a track that has altered itself, perhaps, more than any other – and for so much the better.


Most Holidays Have Become NASCAR Traditions – But Not All

As has been the tradition in NASCAR, no races were run on Easter Sunday.

I’ve been around a while and I can’t remember a NASCAR race – especially a points-paying Sprint Cup affair – ever being run on Easter Sunday.

I freely admit that my memory ain’t what it used to be. If you recall such an Easter race, feel free to tell me about it.

Now, in the days when postponed NASCAR races were rescheduled for a week later, instead of the next clear day as they are now, I do recall an event or two conducted on the Saturday before Easter.

It is easy to understand why NASCAR, and its speedways, don’t want to race on Easter. It’s a religious holiday that many people observe by going to church and spending time with family.

A visit from the Easter bunny, Easter egg hunts and the family dinner are going to trump a race every time.

But, interestingly, NASCAR and a few tracks have thrived on holidays. For years, races have been scheduled to run on weekends of national celebration, and still are.

The Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend became a not only a tradition, but also a part of NASCAR lore.

Fans would flock to the track for an extended weekend of racing and partying. For them, the best thing was that once racing activity ended on Saturday, usually with the conclusion of a Nationwide race, everything was shut down until Monday morning – Labor Day.

Which meant that Saturday night, Sunday and Sunday night were wide open for all manner of freewheeling celebrations, for fans and media alike.

Then, on Labor Day, it was time to race.

The Southern 500 hasn’t been conducted at Darlington on Labor Day for several years, something that still stings the hearts of the traditionalists.

Atlanta has that holiday weekend now as its only date of the season. But it has made the most of it by providing fans with all manner of entertainment and amenities.

For example, stick around on Labor Day and the track is likely to serve you breakfast on the house.

With its Memorial Day weekend schedule Charlotte Motor Speedway has made the Coca-Cola 600 much more than a race. It’s a happening.

Probably no other race comes with as much pomp, glitter and entertainment – and this year fans will be treated to the world’s largest outdoor HDTV screen.

CMS never fails to honor those for whom the holiday was created. Military presence at the 600 is huge and the pre-race show is inspired by the armed forces, which are always prominently featured.

July 4 is our nation’s birthday and, at Daytona, for many years it was the date for what was once known as the Firecracker 400.

The race was unique. It once started no later than 11 a.m. on July 4, often earlier, because of the heat. Since it was just 400 miles it was usually over in plenty of time for fans, and competitors, to get back on the beach to catch some late-afternoon sun.

It was one of the most laid-back races in NASCAR. For the teams preparation certainly wasn’t as intense or demanding as it was for the Daytona 500.

Crews completed virtually all of their work in the morning so they could get to the beach by early afternoon.

The media knew that any team that was still at the track at around 2 p.m. was having real problems. It was virtually alone in the garage area.

Not that the media knew what those problems were. By 2 p.m. most of them were long gone.

The media used to appoint one guy – usually a rookie writer – to hang out at the track beyond noon. If anything newsworthy developed he was to report to the rest at poolside.

Since 1998, Daytona’s summer race has been conducted under the lights on Independence Day weekend if not July 4 itself.

I think that if Charlotte, Daytona, Darlington – and now Atlanta – didn’t have the holiday dates they do, it might be more difficult to promote their races and attract fans.

There’s a reason for that. Unlike Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day are holidays to which no religious strings are attached.

To many people, they are all about fun. There’s a day off work, barbecue grills to fire up, fireworks to light, a trip to the beach or pool, and, yes, and a NASCAR race.

There is one other “holiday” that demands a taboo when it comes to racing – and it’s Mother’s Day.

It’s not an official holiday and some of the more cynical of us think it was created just to sell cards, chocolates and flowers (like Valentine’s Day).

It doesn’t matter. The last thing any speedway wants to do is stage a race on a day set aside for mom.

Sure, mom may be a huge race fan. But that doesn’t matter. No guy in his right mind is going to attend a race on a day to honor his mother, grandmother, wife – or all three.

As I recall, a race was indeed run on Mother’s Day, May 11, 1986 at Atlanta. It was the second running of The Winston, a special “all-star” event for winners only.

The race itself was pitiful. Bill Elliott led all 83 laps. The attendance was equally pitiful. Only 18,500 fans showed up – or at least that’s what was announced.

Ironically, when the Labor Day date was taken away from Darlington and it was reduced to one event per season, the race was scheduled for the Saturday night before Mother’s Day.

Many thought it was poison.

Turns out it’s been quite the opposite. Attendance-wise, Darlington has done very, very well. Seems mom has no problem going to a race before her special day.

Ol’ Darlington seems to be working on another tradition.


Current Situation Aside, Elliott’s Glory Remains Intact

Bill Elliott admits he’s not sure when, or if, he’ll race again. He said he’s just on the sidelines. He’s taking it one day at a time.

The situation seems decidedly inglorious for a driver who ranks as one of the greatest in NASCAR and who is one of the most popular competitors in any form of motorsports.

But, perhaps, we could have seen it coming. Elliott has been a part-time driver since 2004, his last full season with Ray Evernham.

The teams with which he’s raced have been, for the most part, second tier.

He did spend four seasons with Wood Brothers Racing, which has a glorious past. But the team has competed on a limited schedule due to a lack of funds – and thus has been largely uncompetitive and ignored. With Elliott, it had a past champion and, at the least, was assured of provisional starts.

Elliott’s association with the Woods came to a conclusion at the end of last season. Ironically, his replacement, Trevor Bayne, won the 2011 Daytona 500 and restored some glory to the Woods with his surprising and hugely popular victory.

Elliott, meanwhile, started the season with Phoenix Racing and was scheduled to run 17 races. But he was released from the team last month.

At Talladega Elliott used his provisional start to get the Whitney Motorsports car in the race and later turned the wheel over to J.J. Yeley.

One published report said that Elliott didn’t want to run the entire race and, before it started, made a deal with Yeley to finish up.

At the least, that’s a very curious situation.

To many, it’s also curious how Elliott could have let his career deteriorate to the point where he’s standing on the side of the road with his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride.

All he’s done, it’s said, is tarnish his established image by hooking up with uncompetitive rides. He hasn’t done anything more than hang around into his 50s.

I don’t share those opinions.

I’ve known Elliott since he broke into NASCAR in 1976, when we dubbed him “Huck Finn.” I’ve had several conversations with him over the years. But I haven’t talked with him about his most recent competitive status, so I don’t know the reasons for it or why he has seemingly accepted it.

But I can take a guess.

I surmise that, perhaps, it all has something to do with Elliott’s 15-year-old son Chase, a racing prodigy.

Maybe Elliott wanted to race on a limited schedule in order to spend more time helping his son’s competitive development.

As I recall, Mark Martin did something similar a few years back when his son Matt became involved in racing.

Elliott’s options, when it came to high-quality teams, were limited. Most are not interested in anything part-time.

But with his past champion’s provisional, Elliott was assured a starting position in every race he ran – and that meant additional income, which certainly couldn’t hurt when it came to Chase’s fledgling career.

Chase, incidentally, has been signed to a developmental driver contract with Hendrick Motorsports. So perhaps his dad may now think there’s not much need to race at all.

But, as I said, I don’t know. I’m only guessing.

What I do know is that it matters little what has happened in recent years. The glow on Elliott’s career remains intact – and that’s certainly no guess.

It won’t be forgotten that he won 44 races, including 11 superspeedway events in 1985, the same year he won the inaugural Winston Million bonus.

He won the Daytona 500 two times. He won the Brickyard 400 in 2002. He holds Talladega’s qualifying record of 212.809 mph, the fastest lap in NASCAR history. He was the 1988 Winston Cup champion.

And he was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 16 times.

Elliott has long since established his standing in NASCAR. What he’s done over the last few years and how it’s been perceived won’t change that now or ever.

Frankly, knowing Elliott, I don’t believe he’s given any of this a second thought – if he thought about it at all.


How Chevrolet Made Its NASCAR Return in 1971

In 1971, Junior’s efforts to land R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as a sponsor didn’t bring the results he wanted. Instead, the company became the financial backer of NASCAR’s top circuit, which became known as the Winston Cup Grand National Series. A new era began for stock car racing.

But not for Junior. He still didn’t have the money to go racing.

Then he got a phone call from Richard Howard, the enterprising promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Howard had an idea – and he thought Junior was the man who could help him make it a reality.


Junior’s contributions to will appear every other Friday throughout the season.


When it came to races at Charlotte, Richard always had schemes – and most all of them worked. He had helped bring the speedway out of bankruptcy and make it financially stable.

When he called me I didn’t have any idea what he wanted to talk about. He asked me if I wanted to build a Chevrolet to run at Charlotte in the World 600. He asked me if I would drive it.

I said I wouldn’t drive, but then, I thought about building one. Problem was, I didn’t know what was available. Where would I locate Chevrolet engines, chassis, components and other stuff?

Chevrolet hadn’t been in NASCAR since 1963. That was the biggest reason Richard wanted a Chevy to race at Charlotte.

Chevy was the most popular car in America. Richard knew fans would fill his grandstands just to see it race again.

I figured the Monte Carlo was the model best suited for NASCAR – but I had no idea what NASCAR would think about that.

The Monte Carlo was so wide its wheelbase had to be reduced. I met with NASCAR and asked them to let me use the Monte Carlo front snout, but cut it where it fit the wheelbase rule. They let me do that.

But it didn’t end there. Because it was a Chevrolet, there were no NASCAR rules about motors and other things. I had to get the car approved by showing NASCAR all that was going on with the motors, how it was built and that kind of stuff.

With the help of some good assistants, the Chevy was ready to race just five weeks after I first spoke with Richard.

We got Charlie Glotzbach to drive for us. They called him “Chargin’ Charlie” so that should tell you he had a driving style I liked.

We were ready for shakedown runs at Charlotte. I had no idea how the car would do. It was all brand new. Everything I had done to it was untried.

When got to Charlotte I was shocked an amazed at how fast the Chevy ran. But I realized that, being a driver in the past, I obviously wanted a fast car.

So did the guys who worked for me, Turkey Minton and Herb Nab. We were taking a shot in the dark, so we duplicated the best of everything we knew, and it worked.

Charlie won the World 600 pole with a speed of 157.788 mph. He led the race four times for 87 laps. He even put a lap on the field before the race was halfway over.

But then Charlie swerved to miss Speedy Thompson on the frontstretch and darned if Charlie didn’t hit the wall. That was the end for us. Charlie finished 28th.

As Richard expected, the fans showed up to see the Chevrolet. The attendance was announced at 78,000 – which told Richard and I that we had something really good.

Since we owned the only competitive Chevrolet, we knew that car carried a lot of clout. We thought that clout could help us regain the money we had spent on it.

So we offered to race the Chevy in other events if the promoters would pay us $10,000 in appearance money.

Some promoters jumped right in but others didn’t. The ones that paid, well, I made certain we went back to their second race of the season.

The ones that didn’t pay, shoot, we didn’t go to their second race – even if they wanted us after they had seen fans hanging off the fences earlier. They ticked me off.

You know, I believe the promoters who paid for us began to look at the whole thing in a different light.

They reasoned that if they paid $10,000 for us they could get eight to 10 other top teams for $2,000 or $3,000 apiece.

That type of appearance payment system became, I think, the basis for the “Winner’s Circle” program, which NASCAR used to assure that the top, winning teams would be at every race.

We had a successful year with the Chevy. We entered 14 races, won at Bristol and took four pole positions.

For 1972, Richard and I decided we were going to run the full schedule and go for the championship – with a Chevrolet, of course.

By the way, since 1971, Chevy has remained in NASCAR and, I reckon, done pretty well for itself.


Nationwide and Trucks to Nashville for Easter


The NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Camping WOrld Truck Series head into Nashville this weekend while the Sprint Cup series takes a weekend off. Which one of these series is really healthier and gives the upcoming drivers a better taste of what’s ahead for them?


The Tale Of The First Closest-Ever NASCAR Finish In 2003

As you no doubt know by now, Jimmie Johnson’s .002-second victory over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway tied the record for the closest finish in NASCAR history.

The mark was originally established in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 18, 2003.

That race didn’t end with a gaggle of eight cars running in 2×2 drafts – heck, that style of racing is about as far removed from Darlington as it can be.

The final laps at the crusty old track consisted of two cars beating and banging on each other as their drivers desperately fought for an advantage – however small it might be.

At the checkered flag, Ricky Craven, driving a Pontiac and Kurt Busch, in a Ford, seemed to cross the finish line glued together. Few could tell who had won. Many thought it was a dead heat.

But television replays clearly showed that Craven, on the inside, had crossed the finish line ahead of Busch by fractions of an inch – or .002-second.

At the time it stood alone as the closest finish in NASCAR’s long history.

It remains the closest in Darlington’s history, which is littered with memorable finishes, achieved by some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

The historic Craven-Busch outcome was just one milestone reached at Darlington in the spring of 2003. The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 was the speedway’s 100th NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.

Terry Labonte made his 750th career start, Bill Elliott his 700th, Kyle Petty his 650th, Dale Jarrett his 500th and for Jeff Burton, it was start No. 300.

Neither Craven nor Busch were anywhere near such longevity. Craven began racing full-time in Cup competition in 1995 with team owner Larry Hedrick, with whom he won the rookie of the year title.

Busch came onto the scene in 2000 as a Jack Roush protégé. He won four races in 2002 and was considered a rising star.

By 2003, Craven, on the other hand, was racing on borrowed time – although he didn’t know it.

In 1997, Craven, a Maine native, caught a huge break. He signed on with Hendrick Motorsports. In the season’s first race, the Daytona 500, Craven finished third behind winner Jeff Gordon and runnerup Labonte – both teammates.

It was a one-two-three Hendrick sweep.

For Craven, things looked very promising, indeed.

But fate dealt him a cruel blow.

During practice for the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Craven crashed hard into the wall. He sustained a concussion and missed the next two races.

He returned to win the Winston Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

But the side effects of his injury would not go away. They grew so severe in 1998 that Craven was re-evaluated and declared a victim of post-concussion syndrome.

He missed most of the season. When he did return he competed in just four more races for Hendrick before he was released.

For the next couple of seasons Craven raced, unspectacularly, for second-tier teams.

Since most organizations wouldn’t take a chance on a driver who had suffered a head injury, with lingering effects, it would not have been a great surprise if Craven’s career had simply melted away.

But in 2001 he caught another break. He was signed to replace Scott Pruett at Cal Wells Motorsports. Craven latched on with a new team, but one with potential.

That potential was realized in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 15 of that year. In an intense battle with Dale Jarrett, Craven emerged the victor in, yes, an extremely close finish.

It was Craven’s first career Cup victory – very popular among fellow competitors and fans – and an emotional one for him. His career had been resurrected.

Craven, or anyone else for that matter, could not have known what was to happen two years later.

At Darlington it all came down to the final three laps.

Busch was the leader. Craven latched on to his rear bumper and went low in the fourth turn in an attempt to pass. He couldn’t.

On the next lap, Craven drew alongside Busch out of the fourth turn and the two raced down the frontstretch side-by-side.

Craven took the lead in the first turn by crowding Busch to the outside. Busch tapped the right rear of Craven’s Pontiac and took the lead as the white flag flew.

The crowd was enraptured by the action. Fans, all out of their seats, were screaming.

Out of the fourth turn on the last lap, Craven slammed into the side of Busch’s Ford, which yanked the wheel out of the Roush driver’s hands.

They were locked side-by-side at the checkered flag. Sparks were flying.

Neither knew who had won the race – until Craven looked at the scoring tower and saw his car number on top.

Afterward, both Craven and Busch, who shared an emotional experience as they congratulated each other in victory lane, remarked that the finish was fun, exciting and one of which each was proud to be a part. They knew they had become fixtures in NASCAR history.

It was Craven’s last shining moment in racing.

Three-quarters of the way through the 2004 season he was replaced at Wells by Bobby Hamilton Jr.

His Cup career ended after 278 starts.

Busch, of course, has gone on to greater things.

But they remain, and always will, a part of NASCAR lore. They were the drivers who established the closest finish in NASCAR’s history.

Since that time, of course, it has been equaled – but then, never bettered.


Leave Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Alone

It’s been far to long that the media, NASCAR and its fan base has pushed and pulled on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. trying recapture some of the aura from his Father. The driver has a right to his own life without the consistent and unreasonable expectations placed on him.

Opinions Aside, The Aaron’s 499 Finish Is Now A Part Of NASCAR Lore

The finish of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway will rank – heck it already has – as one of the best in NASCAR’s history.

Which means the race will be forever be a part of NASCAR lore. And why should it not be?

Jimmie Johnson nipped Clint Bowyer in a wild, four-car finish by .002-second, which was, again, the closest finish in NASCAR’s history since the introduction of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

It tied Ricky Craven’s victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003, a race since pronounced by many, NASCAR included, as “One For The Ages.”

Reckon Johnson and Bowyer are now part of another “One For The Ages.”

But I suspect many might disagree.

See, Craven and Busch battled at Darlington, a crusty, old, unforgiving track where such things as aerodynamics and drafting manipulated by NASCAR legislation – all widely despised by some – play no role. A driver’s skill, it’s said, has always been more important to success at Darlington than it has at Talladega or Daytona, where achievement is simply about the proper negotiation of the draft.

This includes a productive association with a partner, something hardly required at Darlington, where it is man against man.

And when it’s man against man they say THAT is racing.

Fair enough – but that does not always apply to fundamental beating and banging. There’s more to it than that. Dealing with the draft is part of it.

I am certain many who follow NASCAR do not, and likely never will, accept the style of restrictor-plate racing that has evolved today at Daytona and Talladega. And you know what it is. Two cars hook up in the draft and try their best to remain that way and, eventually, get the better of all the others who have done the same thing.

Hence, those who do not approve of this type of racing won’t likely consider any finish at Daytona or Talladega – however exciting – as anything more than a product of the contrived circumstances created by NASCAR and its rules.

OK, that’s their opinion. Here’s another: balderdash.

What Johnson achieved at Talladega is still monumental and historic, just as much as what Craven did at Darlington.

Who cares about the so-called “contrived circumstances?” Johnson won at a track in which the conditions and rules, and all involved therein, applied to everyone, just as Craven did at Darlington. It would have been the same for either of them, or any other driver, if they had won at Richmond, Chicago, Sonoma, Atlanta – you name it. The style of racing at every NASCAR speedway is different and requires competitors and teams to adapt as best as possible – and that involves car preparation and on-track strategy and includes Talladega.

So let’s put what is now restrictor-plate racing at that speedway aside, shall we? It is simply another part of what competition, week in and out, is all about – and to which teams must adapt.

What we saw in the Aaron’s 499 was one of the most exciting and truly unpredictable finishes in NASCAR’s history.

In Turn 3 on the last lap, Johnson, who had pretty much been out of our attention for most of the race, was running in fifth place, pushed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., his constant companion throughout the race.

Ahead of Johnson were the cars of Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

At the checkered flag, Johnson, with Earnhardt Jr.’s help, found the low side of the track, just above the double yellow line, and won the race by a mere fraction of an inch over Bowyer.

It was so reminiscent of rookie Ron Bouchard’s victory at Talladega in 1981. Darrell Waltrip was leading on the last lap and battling Terry Labonte. Labonte had the high side of the track. Waltrip, in an effort to keep Labonte at bay, slid upwards to apply pressure. Neither he nor Labonte noticed Bouchard, then in third place, charge to the inside, following the gap left open to him

Bouchard, a native of Massachusetts, nipped both Waltrip and Labonte. It was an improbable victory and the only one of his NASCAR Cup career.

Johnson’s victory, his first of the season, ended his 15-race losing streak.

It was the 54th of his career, which ties him with Lee Petty for ninth on NASCAR’s all-time list.

His win was the eighth of the past 12 at Talladega that have been achieved with a last-lap pass.

Certainly, given the circumstances, Johnson’s victory was every bit as improbable as Bouchard’s.

And it was every bit as dramatic and exciting.

No matter what some might think of the style of racing at Talladega and the disdain they have for it, that changes nothing.

The Aaron’s 499 is now, and deservedly so, a part of NASCAR lore.


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