After the 1986 Daytona 500 Junior Johnson decided it was time to take stock of his teams.
Darrell Waltrip, already a three-time champ with Johnson, seemed to be operating at his usual high level.
But that couldn’t be said for Neil Bonnett. His team did not match Darrell’s, competitively. Johnson was convinced the reason wasn’t that Bonnett was not a talented driver – he was, very much so.
But something was suspect within his team and Johnson decided he was going to devote more time to it and, hopefully, find a solution.
But Johnson hardly got started before he was distracted.
He was forced to turn his attention toward a Waltrip rival – a brash, aggressive driver named Dale Earnhardt.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
The 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season got off to what I’ll call an “OK” start for Junior Johnson & Associates.
Darrell finished third in the Daytona 500 after Dale Earnhardt ran out of gas on the last lap and handed the victory to Geoff Bodine. Now, third place isn’t bad, but it isn’t first place.
And, to tell the truth, if Dale hadn’t run out of gas, Darrell would have never finished third.
Neil finished 32nd after he suffered a broken wheel just 100 laps into the race. To make matters worse he later got into a multicar wreck. I was very disappointed but I’m sure not nearly as much as Neil.
I had seen a pattern developing. Darrell’s team always seemed in contention for victories. And, as it had already proven, it was championship worthy.
Neil was an excellent driver. But for some reason his team just couldn’t reach the competitive level Darrell’s had achieved.
Sure, there was some bad luck involved here – like at Daytona – but at the same time, I felt we might not be giving Neil all he needed.
I made it a point to concentrate on the efforts of Neil’s team and see what changes, if any, were needed.
I hardly got started. Just a week after Daytona Darrell’s team got involved in an incident that would ultimately define the season.
First, some background.
Like everyone else in NASCAR, I was keenly aware of Dale’s rapid rise to stardom. He won the 1979 rookie of the year title and was the champion in 1980.
I thought then that he was a great talent. But sometimes, for some young drivers, too much happens too quickly. I wondered how Dale would handle his success.
Well, over the next couple of years he got knocked down a peg or two, and it wasn’t really his fault.
His team owner, Rod Osterlund, sold the team right out from under Dale. New owner J.D. Stacy was, in my opinion, something of an unsavory character.
Dale also thought so and quit. He spent the last part of the 1981 season driving for Richard Childress.
I had known Richard for years. In fact, I had worked with him from time to time. He was a capable driver and owner but he just never got the sponsorship money he needed to move up to the next level.
He got it with Wrangler when Dale joined him.
But I knew Richard didn’t have the personnel or equipment to allow Dale to win. Richard knew that, too, and even told Dale.
So Dale left to join Bud Moore in 1983. He and Richard agreed that if Richard could ever take his team to a higher level, Dale would return.
Over the next two years Richard won twice with Ricky Rudd as his driver. I paid attention. I knew Richard’s team was far better than it had been the previous few seasons.
So I wasn’t surprised at all when Dale returned for the 1984 season. I had a strong feeling that he and Richard were going to be a great combination.
No one could argue with me after they nearly won the 1986 Daytona 500. By the way, it was the only thing Dale lost at Daytona. He won the Busch Clash, a 125-mile qualifying race and the 300-mile Late Model Sportsman race.
Dale was brimming with confidence. I certainly couldn’t fault him for that.
But at Richmond, one week after Daytona, I could certainly fault him for letting his confidence overrule his judgment.
Junior Johnson & Associates had every reason to be confident at Richmond. It was a short track and to win on the half-milers had been my teams’ forte.
Sure enough, Darrell was right in the mix. He did lose a lap early but he made it up and got to fighting with Dale for the lead.
Neil wasn’t doing as well, but he was running in the top 10. Because Darrell’s team was battling for the win, I gave it a bit more attention.
Dale was leading on lap 398, just two laps from the finish. But Darrell made a really slick move and shot past Dale down the backstretch.
As the two of them went into the third turn Dale moved to the inside and the right front of his car was alongside Darrell’s left rear.
He hadn’t cleared Darrell. I knew that. And I also knew he couldn’t make the pass.
He tried and, sure enough, he didn’t. Instead he clipped Darrell’s left rear and the two of them spun and crashed hard into the steel guardrail at full speed.
Darrell hit headfirst. He slammed that steel and I felt a sudden chill. He might have been badly injured.
It didn’t end there.
There were five drivers on the lead lap at the time and four of them were involved in the accident.
Only Kyle Petty, who was in fifth place, avoided the mess. He won the race. It was the first victory of his career. It was a gift.
Darrell was knocked down to fifth place.
I was furious. I said at the time that it wouldn’t have been much worse if Dale had taken a gun and pointed it at Darrell’s head.
“Dale has been wrecking everybody lately but me,” Darrell said. “It was my turn. Guess he ain’t choosy.”
I don’t think there’s anything that upsets a team owner more than seeing his car wrecked when it’s in a position to win.
What’s even more disturbing is the thought that it was done on purpose.
Dale at first denied he had done anything intentionally. I wasn’t buying that.
Then, after a while, he said that he made a mistake and should have eased up in the third turn.
NASCAR thought he made a mistake, too. It said that there was a fine line between hard racing and reckless driving and that Dale had crossed it.
It fined Dale $5,000 and put him on probation for one year.
Dale appealed the punishment. It was reduced to a $3,000 fine. The probation was dropped.
I thought at the time that NASCAR pretty much let Dale get away with it all.
But I also thought something else:
As reckless as he could be, it was very obvious that if Junior Johnson & Associates wanted to win another championship, it was going to have to beat Dale Earnhardt.