After the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season, things underwent significant changes at Junior Johnson & Associates in Ronda, N.C.
Gone were the tandem drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnet – a union that lasted the three seasons Johnson committed to a two-car team.
Waltrip had been with Johnson since 1981. Together they won three championships and 43 races. From 1974-80, Cale Yarborough also won three championships and earned 44 victories driving for Johnson.
All three men are now members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But in 1987, Johnson was at a crossroads. He had to determine if he was going to continue to operate a two-car team or return to a single-car operation.
But what was even more important was for Johnson to find a new driver.
At the time there were more than a few accomplished drivers available.
But Johnson really didn’t consider most of them.
He knew exactly who he wanted.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
The 1987 season was going to be a new start for Junior Johnson & Associates. You might say the slate was clean.
After Darrell and Neil departed I mulled over what I should do. I didn’t think it was possible to field two teams again because I was pretty certain Budweiser didn’t want to stretch its investment.
I decided to put the sponsorship money in one basket and field just one team. I thought that would increase our competitiveness and I knew it would help the budget.
I knew who I wanted to be my driver – Dale Earnhardt. Yep, that’s what I said.
I know this sounds very surprising, given I got very angry and upset with him because of his actions at Richmond in 1986, where wrecked Darrell and took him out of the race.
Despite that, I knew Earnhardt was the man.
Yes, he wrecked Darrell but that, to me, was the sign of his aggressiveness and willingness to win at all cost.
His run-in with Darrell certainly wasn’t the only one he had in 1986, but it did enhance his growing reputation as a driver who wasn’t going to be trifled with.
He reminded me of Cale. Both of them knew only one way to race – very hard and up front as much as possible.
Besides, Earnhardt won five races in ’86 and beat Darrell for the championship. It was his second career title and I thought he could win a lot more.
So why not let him grab of couple of championships in my cars?
In the past Dale had indicated to me that he would like to be my driver some day. In 1987, he was scheduled to be Richard Childress’ driver for the third consecutive year.
They first joined forces for the last portion of the 1981 season, when Dale bolted from owner J.D. Stacy, and they reunited in 1984.
I had done a lot of favors for Richard over the years, both when he was driving and when he concentrated on being an owner.
I had helped bring him and Dale together in ’81 and also assisted in locating a sponsor.
So I didn’t feel bad about offering Dale my ride.
But I couldn’t.
For some reason – and I don’t know what it was to this day – Budweiser didn’t want Dale.
I was very, very surprised. He was an up-and-coming driver who had already won two championships and was likely to win more.
His presence on and off the track had to make the folks at Wrangler – his sponsor for six years – delighted.
But Budweiser was insistent. It wanted me to get someone else.
So after a while I got together with Terry Labonte.
Labonte was a winning driver. He was also the 1984 Winston Cup champion. He had raced since 1979 with team owner Billy Hagan but by 1987 that was coming to an end due to Hagan’s financial problems.
Terry might not have been my first choice but he was the man Budweiser wanted.
There were a lot of drivers I could have tapped at the time but Budweiser had been part of Terry’s career in the past and liked him and what he did for them as far as public relations was concerned.
When I hired Terry, I knew things were going to be different – and not necessarily only on the track.
Terry had a personality unlike Darrell’s and even Cale’s. I don’t have to tell you how outspoken and, let’s face it, “mouthy” Darrell could be.
Terry, well, his nickname was “The Iceman.” That was partly due to his cold, calculating style of racing – he reminded folks of David Pearson.
But he also got the name because he didn’t talk much. He was just a quiet guy who said something only when he felt he had something to say.
It was going to take a while for all of us at Junior Johnson & Associates to get used to him.
I liked his demeanor. He took his racing in stride. It didn’t matter what happened to him. He didn’t blame anyone for what happened to him. He took all the blame, even when I thought it wasn’t necessary.
For the most part he let others do the talking.
When the 1987 season began I was optimistic that we could do good things with Terry. He was a proven commodity and, if we could put good cars under him, there was no reason we couldn’t win.
But even with that, inside I felt like a man who let a record-setting fish get away.
If I had it to do over I would have put Terry in the Budweiser car and found the sponsorship to put Dale in a second car. I think me and Dale would have done very well together.
That, however, was not going to be the case.
Nevertheless, I still thought Dale was going to do very, very well in 1987.
Turns out it didn’t take long at all to learn I was right. Not long at all.