Even though Darrell Waltrip did not approve of a two-car team, he and teammate Neil Bonnett combined to produce a good 1984 season for Junior Johnson & Associates.
At the beginning of 1985 there was no reason to make any changes. Budweiser sponsorship was assured for another season and, from all appearances, Waltrip and Bonnett, and their teams, worked together harmoniously.
But for Junior, 1985 got off to a rocky start. Warner Hodgdon, who had been a financial partner and a man who prolifically spread money around NASCAR, was in serious legal trouble. He had to file for bankruptcy.
Junior faced the daunting task of rescuing his team from financial ruin.
Fortunately that was accomplished.
Both Waltrip and Bonnett started the season competitively and shaped themselves into championship contenders.
But it didn’t take long for them, and everyone else, to learn that to win a title meant to stop an unexpectedly strong, relatively new, driver and team – both poised to make NASCAR history.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
In1984, my two-car experiment worked out pretty well, I thought.
Darrell won seven races but finished fifth in points behind Terry Labonte, who won the championship driving for Billy Hagan.
In his first year with me, Neil didn’t win, but he wound up eighth in points. I thought, overall, we delivered a pretty good one-two punch for the season.
As far as I was concerned the two-car operation was full-speed ahead for the 1985 season. I was determined that performance would be even better.
But I had to attend to not-so-small problem.
Warner Hodgdon, whom I had taken on as a financial partner, was in serious trouble.
He was a real estate developer and he became embroiled in a bid-rigging scheme that, as I recall, was triggered by an unfaithful employee.
Warner faced lawsuits totaling $53 million. He had to dispose of all his NASCAR interests – track and teams included – and file for bankruptcy.
He owed me a considerable amount of money so I had no choice but to file foreclosure papers.
On a bitter, cold day in January 1985, the Wilkes County clerk of court auctioned off Warner’s portion of Junior Johnson & Associates on the courthouse steps. I was the first one there.
I paid about $200,000 to regain full control of my team.
Warner’s intentions were honest. He played a key role in getting me backed by Anheuser-Busch in a two-car operation. And I think he helped the tracks with which he was involved, too. I was sorry for what happened to him.
That issue aside, we were ready for the 1985 season. Darrell and Neil were back on board, of course, and, as usual, there was confidence that we could win yet another title.
I didn’t know it at the time but the 1985 Winston Cup season was going to be one of the most memorable in NASCAR’s history. And my team would play a role in it.
To set the stage, during the offseason, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. announced two new projects.
The first was The Winston, called an “all star” race because only race winners could compete. It offered no points but a heckuva lot of money.
The second was The Winston Million. It offered a $1 million prize to any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola World 600 and the Southern 500.
I was intrigued. Darrell? Well, his mouth was watering. He knew we were in The Winston – scheduled for May in Charlotte – and he also felt he had a solid shot at that $1 million.
Let’s put it this way: I sure didn’t have to motivate him. Not at all.
The season started almost perfectly. Darrell was the runnerup in the Busch Clash and a Daytona 125-mile qualifier. He then finished third in the Daytona 500. Yes, we didn’t win, but we were already near the top of the point standings.
But for me, the real thrill came in the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, the third race of the season.
That’s when Neil got his first victory with me in a wild, exciting finish.
Neil was involved in a metal-swapping battle with Harry Gant and on the last lap, Neil made the pass to win by inches.
I thought the world of Harry, but it sure tickled me to see one of my drivers win like that.
It was great racing, a throwback to NASCAR’s early days.
Neil wasn’t through. In April at North Wilkesboro, he won again. And Darrell finished second by a car length.
It was a “double dip” for Junior Johnson & Associates and one of my proudest moments at my home track.
As good as that was, however, and as quick a start as we had, things could have been a lot better.
When the season’s 10th race came around my team had won only twice – with Neil. Despite a couple of solid runnerup finishes, Darrell had yet to win a race.
And he suffered a great disappointment at one of his favorite tracks, Martinsville, when his engine blew and he finished 23rd.
Nothing gripes me more than engine failure. While I know the occasional bad part can cause it, many more times it can be traced to a lack of preparation – and that I never tolerated.
I was going to get to the root of the problem.
But then, we had another problem. And for that matter, so did every other team on the Winston Cup circuit.
The problem? Bill Elliott.
The kid out of Georgia with his one-car, Harry Melling-owned team, was shredding the competition.
By late May he had won seven races, all on superspeedways. He was on course to break David Pearson’s record of 10 big-track wins in a single season.
He was also well on his way to a cool million bucks. He won the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 at Talladega, which meant if he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the 10th race of the season, the money was his before the year was half completed.
The only way to stall Elliott was to beat him, of course.
But at that time it didn’t look as if anyone could.