It was a logical, mutual decision. Labonte hadn’t made the progress he and Johnson would have liked. To both of them it seemed like things were going nowhere.
Labonte did have good seasons with Johnson. He finished in the top 10 in points from 1987-1989. But he won only four races, which even Labonte felt wasn’t good enough.
Junior was faced with the often difficult decision: Who would be his next driver? Was there someone he felt could help Junior Johnson & Associates improve in 1990?
Turns out that, yes, there was.
It’s fair to say that Junior’s decision shocked a lot of observers. The driver he selected was unlike any other who raced out of his Wilkes County, N.C., shops.
Many suggested the union would not work.
Johnson thought it would. He hoped the 1990 NASCAR Winston Cup season would prove it.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
At the close of the 1989 season, I knew I had to make some changes. It was a tough decision. It always is.
I felt it would be best if Terry did not continue with Junior Johnson & Associates. It was nothing personal, not by a long shot. Terry was perhaps the most personable and easy-going driver I ever had. He never made waves. Everyone liked him.
Now, I won’t hide the fact that, from time to time, I thought he might not have been as aggressive on the track as I would have liked to have seen.
Terry was a smooth, steady driver. He was very calculating. He did not push the car. He was not hard on equipment.
If he had a car capable of winning a race, well, he could indeed win it.
But I can’t help but think that he was at something of a disadvantage. The drivers who won most of the races from 1987-1989 were real leadfoots – guys like Dale, Rusty, Bill and even Darrell.
I freely admit I always liked that kind of driver, and I think my record as a team owner proves that. Bobby, Cale and Darrell were recognized as aggressive drivers – and got results.
During his three years with me, Terry won only four races. But, he had 33 finishes among the top five and 51 among the top 10.
In two of those three years he was a solid championship contender.
But I had been used to better things – and in three years with Terry things didn’t get better. The 1989 season was our least competitive.
I think Terry viewed everything from the same perspective I did. He said it seemed like, together, we weren’t getting anywhere.
I know he wanted to win more – obviously. But given that he hadn’t and thought there wasn’t enough progress to ensure he could, well, he reached the conclusion it was time to move on.
That was the same conclusion I reached. So we decided to part ways.
But I have to tell you this. As much I wanted Terry to be a part of the blossom years Junior Johnson & Associates enjoyed before he arrived, I have to freely admit I made more money with Terry than I did with any other driver.
I think that was because I had, perhaps, a more significant sponsorship than I had ever had. There was more money to work with.
At the same time Terry ran well enough in each of his three seasons to earn some good dollars – those points do pay off. We were profitable.
In three seasons, Terry posted earnings in excess of $2.4 million. Darn good money in those days.
So while I could always enjoy winning and all the glory that goes with it, well, I still enjoyed the financial side of it.
In that respect I reckon I wasn’t any different than any other team owner.
All team owners, from time to time, have to make a sometimes difficult decision: Which driver is going to race my cars?
I decided that Geoff Bodine would become part of Junior Johnson & Associates for 1990. He agreed.
OK, I will be very honest here. I’m not sure anyone thought we would hook up.
Geoff was a Yankee from New York and he was going to drive for a man born and bred in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina?
A one-time moonshiner was going to hook up with a New Englander? No one could hardly imagine such a thing.
Here’s how I looked at it. Bodine was a huge star in the Modified ranks. Not only could he drive – and win – he knew all about cars. He could fix ‘em, build ‘em and make them better than they were.
He got his start in Winston Cup racing with Rick Hendrick in 1984 and won his first race that year. He won seven races in six years.
But by the end of the 1989 season, Darrell was Hendrick’s star. Geoff was not. Darrell won six races that year; Geoff only one.
I had a good hunch Geoff did not want to play second fiddle on a team he had helped bring to prominence. He didn’t want to play support role in a multicar organization.
I was right. Geoff quickly hooked up with me. He was going to be the driver for a one-car team that had a record of success. I’m sure it was something he simply could not turn down.
Now, I knew full well Geoff could be a bit difficult to work with at times and was a man who, sometimes, stubbornly stood by his convictions, even if it put him at odds with his owner and teammates.
But I also knew about his driving ability and his knowledge of race cars and how to make them better and faster. In my book that combination was too good to ignore.
I also knew that during the 1990 season I was going to find out if I was right.