Junior had lent Waltrip the money to buy out the remainder of his contract with DiGard Racing Co. He did so because he felt strongly that Waltrip was the driver who could help his team win another championship.
The Johnson-Waltrip union was considered by many observers as the one to beat in 1981. In fact, it was widely thought that any talented driver could win a title driving Johnson’s cars.
There was plenty of evidence. Cale Yarborough had won three consecutive Winston Cup championships from 1976-78, finished fourth in 1979 and second in 1980, the last year he drove for Junior.
Junior said publicly he thought that with Darrell, his team was going to win a lot of races and championships.
The first step toward that goal would come on Jan. 9, 1981, when Waltrip took his first official laps for Junior Johnson & Associates on the road course at Riverside, Calif., site of the first race of the season.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
By the way, those first laps were pretty darn good. In his first competition with us, Darrell won the pole for the Riverside race with a speed of 141.711 mph.
Immediately the guys on my team felt a sense of optimism that we just might win our very first race with Darrell as our driver.
I admit I felt that same sense of optimism.
But it wasn’t to be. Darrell led the first three laps and then slid off the course. Later, our Buick had a fouled spark plug and Darrell was forced to pit for a good while.
After that there was no way we were going to win. Darrell finished 17th to winner Bobby Allison – who always gave us a real challenge ever since he left the team after the 1972 season.
Things turned for the better quickly at Daytona. Darrell won the Busch Clash and that earned us $71,500 – the most money we’d taken in for a single event up to that time.
Then, in a 125-mile qualifying race, Darrell showed the skill and daring I knew he had. On the last lap he dove almost down to the apron to beat Benny Parsons.
Some of the drivers didn’t like the way Darrell won, saying he was “too risky” and that he “endangered others’ lives.”
Bull. Darrell was doing what it took to win the race and I said so. I thought the others complained about his “moves” because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the same.
We stood a chance of winning the Clash, a 125-mile qualifying race and the Daytona 500 – a sweep.
But that evaporated just 117 laps into the 500 when an engine blew. Darrell wound up in 36th place, which, of course, put him well back in the point standings.
It got some folks to thinking that maybe Darrell wasn’t going to do all that well with me, after all.
We quickly put that notion to rest. Darrell won at Richmond on Feb. 22, 1981 – our first win together – and then won three more races and finished third in another during a six-race span.
After Richmond Darrell won at Rockingham, Bristol and Darlington. He finished third in his first start for Junior Johnson & Associates at North Wilkesboro, my “home” track, and was downright apologetic about it.
I have to add something here. When I hired Darrell a lot of folks said it wouldn’t work. We would end up arguing and fighting with each other. It was said I would get fed up with Darrell’s cockiness and brashness.
And, too, Darrell had said some unkind things about my team while he was with DiGard.
Yeah, there were some pretty strong words back and forth over the years. But you have that in racing. There was never any hatred or anything approaching it. We both had the same goal – to win.
Darrell was pretty much all I figured he would be and we had a good rapport.
After our red-hot start together, things cooled off. The Darlington win had come in April and we didn’t win again until mid-June – a span of seven races.
The victory drought came to an end at Riverside. There, Darrell earned his fifth win of the season and it was a tonic for us.
Allison, who was the points leader, blew up after 26 laps. That meant he was 193 points ahead of runnerup Ricky Rudd. And, with the victory, Darrell cut his third-place deficit from 341 to 232 points.
Darrell said he knew we could make it up. All we had to do was make Allison race for the title and “he’ll blow up engines if we put the pressure on.”
Told you he was “mouthy.”
But he was right.
After the season’s halfway point – which traditionally has been July at Daytona – Darrell went on a tear even I could never have imagined.
He won seven races, at Nashville, Pocono, Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte and Rockingham – those last four were consecutive – and finished second six more times.
Darrell won four races in a row for the first time since 1976, when Cale accomplished the feat. Yep, he was driving for me.
Darrell’s incredible hot streak wiped out Allison’s lead in the points. Allison did win the final race of the season at Riverside, but Darrell’s sixth-place finish there earned us the championship by 53 points.
In 1981, Darrell won 12 races and the championship – which was the first of his career and the fourth for me as a team owner.
Together we did what we thought we could do and, I think, more than what many expected of us.
Oh, and our earnings for that season were nearly $800,000.
So I got a great return on my investment in Darrell pretty darn quick.