Junior Johnson & Associates didn’t have a particularly productive season in 1986 – although, by most standards, it was a very good one.
But standards were always higher for Junior’s teams. Three wins for Darrell Waltrip and just one for teammate Neil Bonnett just didn’t measure up.
The two did earn late-season victories and those served as farewell presents for Junior. Since mid-year, it was common knowledge that Waltrip and Bonnett were going to depart for new teams in 1987.
However, there was no lame duck racing of any kind. Both drivers competed as hard as they could and Waltrip fought Dale Earnhardt for the championship, but finished second in the final point standings.
Waltrip’s six years with Junior were vastly successful ones. Never again would he achieve as much as he did in the same amount of time.
When the 1986 season came to a close, it was time for Junior to make a major decision.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
With Darrell, Junior Johnson & Associates came up a bit short in 1986. We lost the championship to Dale by 288 points.
Hey, did I say we came up a bit “short?” We weren’t even close, in my opinion.
Darrell won only three races in 1986, just as he did in 1985. The big difference was that he won the Winston Cup title that year.
I certainly can’t fault Darrell’s effort. And I can’t fault Neil’s either – even if he did win only once and finished 13th in points.
Those two gave it their all and the guys on my team did, too. I was proud of them, especially since everyone knew by June of 1986 that Darrell and Neil weren’t going to race for me in 1987.
The story was printed in the Charlotte Observer. It said that Darrell was going to join Rick Hendrick’s team and that Waddell Wilson was going to leave Harry Ranier’s team to be Darrell’s crew chief.
Hendrick called it a “dream team.”
Not long after that, Neil announced he was going to leave Junior Johnson & Associates to race for Rahmoc Racing, a team owned by Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly.
None of this caught me by surprise. I had a lot of friends in racing and in the businesses connected with the sport. I knew what was going on.
What Rick wanted just as much as Darrell was my Budweiser sponsorship. The Bud officials were good, solid people who kept their word.
Rick thought that Darrell could bring Budweiser sponsorship to him. And I reckon Darrell thought the same thing.
What they didn’t know was that before my former partner Warner Hodgdon left racing, him and me went to Budweiser headquarters in St. Louis.
We renegotiated a sponsorship deal that would last through the 1989 season. The contract Budweiser signed was with me, not Darrell.
And Budweiser wasn’t about to break that contract. So much for Darrell and Rick.
There was a big deal made of Darrell’s union with Rick. At an Atlanta hotel in November of 1986, they staged this big to-do press conference at which Darrell pushed his new car into view through clouds of smoke.
It was quite a production, I guess. I don’t really know because I wasn’t there, of course.
I didn’t have to be there to find out what Darrell said. In front of all the media who were at the fancy announcement, Darrell leaned down and kissed the hood of his new car. Then he said:
“I’m getting off a mule and onto a good, strong thoroughbred.”
I’ve been told that the press guys in attendance were somewhat taken aback, especially since Darrell and I had accomplished so much in our six years together.
As I remember, I was a bit more puzzled over Darrell’s comment than I was upset. Sure, I didn’t like it. But I knew Darrell. And I knew there were times when he tried to be witty, but instead he looked silly.
Certainly I felt the need to respond. I said:
“I’ve had a jackass driving my car and now I’m rid of him.”
That’s about as harsh as we got with each other. It was kinda fun, to tell the truth.
I think Darrell realized, just as I had, what we had done together. We won three championships, 43 races and nearly $6 million in the course of six years.
Darrell once said that if it hadn’t been for me, he might have been just another race car driver. He said that thanks to what I gave him, and what we did together, he could tell folks there wasn’t much in Winston Cup racing he hadn’t done.
A few years later Darrell said that if he had stuck with me he would have won a lot more races and probably more championships than anyone else.
You know, I had heard something like that many years earlier.
After Bobby Allison decided to go out on his own after his 1972 season with me, much later he said the same thing – if he had stuck with me he would have won more races and championships.
Well, Darrell and Bobby, I couldn’t agree more.
Starting with Cale in 1976 and ending with Darrell in 1985, Junior Johnson & Associates won six championships.
Those were good years with those two. I really enjoyed both those boys and I count them as two of the best friends I’ve got in racing.
Several years later, Sports Illustrated printed a story ranking the best NASCAR drivers. I was listed as No. 1, Darrell No. 6 and Cale No. 7.
I’ve always had fun telling those boys I could outdrive their asses. Now, Sports Illustrated says it, too.
But back to 1986. Obviously, I knew there were going to be changes for the 1987 season and one of them was going to be my driver, of course.
I knew the man I wanted.
And you might be very surprised.