In his first year driving for Junior Johnson, Terry Labonte proved to be steady, if unspectacular.
At he start of the 1987 season, he gave Junior Johnson & Associates a string of top-10 finishes. Brett Bodine made his contributions with two runs among the top 10 while Labonte was sidelined with a broken shoulder.
When Labonte returned he continued to display remarkable consistency.
But it was clear that was not going to be enough to win a Winston Cup championship. Dale Earnhardt was blistering the competition, especially early in the season when he won four races in a row. He quickly moved into first place in the point standings and, from all evidence, seemed destined to stay there.
Labonte’s best early performance came at Talladega, the ninth race of the year, where he finished second.
What’s decidedly more memorable about that race is that if a particularly violent, frightening incident been only slightly worse, it might have meant the end of NASCAR.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
I think that for Junior Johnson & Associates, the tone of the 1987 was set very early.
Terry Labonte, our driver on what was now a single-car team after three seasons with Darrell, Neil and two cars, broke his shoulder in a crash at Darlington – only the fifth race of the year.
I took on Brett Bodine as Terry’s relief driver and he did a fine job in the two races he ran for us, at North Wilkesboro and Bristol.
He finished eighth at North Wilkesboro and ninth at Bristol so we were safely among the top 10 in points and contenders.
Considering that we had to make a brief driver switch, I didn’t think that was too bad.
Terry returned to driving on April 26 at Martinsville, the eighth race of the season. He was a little tender, a little sore, but he was ready to go.
Curious thing – I told NASCAR I wanted to keep Brett handy at Martinsville to fill in as a relief driver. But NASCAR said I couldn’t do that. It said he was a rookie driver and therefore not allowed to relieve a Winston Cup competitor.
This was certainly puzzling. NASCAR said it was OK for Brett to drive my car when Terry couldn’t. But now it told me that Brett couldn’t relieve Terry, if necessary, at Martinsville.
So, what’s the difference?
I won’t deny that I had my concerns over NASCAR’s rule making over the years. Perhaps this tells you one reason why.
Nevertheless, we were fortunate because we didn’t need Brett. Terry qualified second and finished fifth at Martinsville to give us six top-10 finishes in eight races – and keep us in the title hunt.
But the problem was no one could keep up with Dale. He was on a tear that began at Daytona. He was the winner at Martinsville. That was his fourth consecutive victory in a row – Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville.
He won six of the year’s first nine races. He left Martinsville in first place in points, 157 ahead of Bill Elliott.
OK, OK. I admit that maybe I’ve gone on too much about him.
But you have to understand that he was the guy I wanted to drive my cars in 1987. I couldn’t get sponsor approval and Dale continued to drive for Richard Childress.
Reckon you can’t blame me if I thought, “What if…?”
But the reality was that Terry was my driver and he had been very steady. He turned in his best performance early in the year at the ninth race of the season, the Winston 500 at Talladega, where he finished second.
By the way, that race has gone down as a benchmark in NASCAR history.
At the time our engines were wide open. Other than cubic-inch displacement – and a few other things – engine builders were left to their own imaginations. Well not entirely, of course.
So when it came to tracks like Daytona and Talladega cars were absolutely flying. Speeds were increasing constantly.
Elliott won the pole for the Winston 500 with a speed of 212.809 mph, a record that still stands and likely always will.
Some drivers began to complain that the high speeds were uncomfortable and unsafe. Others said nothing was wrong.
I didn’t really come out and speak loudly on the issue. To me, it was obvious NASCAR didn’t really want to change anything because, let’s face it, speed sells tickets.
And plenty of tickets were sold at Talladega.
But inside I knew on thing for certain: It was going to take a very serious incident for NASCAR to clamp down on increasing speeds.
That’s exactly what happened at Talladega. We hadn’t run two dozen laps before Bobby Allison’s Buick got airborne and crashed into the catch fence along the front dogleg.
The fence was literally torn down. Metal flew into the grandstands and some fans were injured. Miraculously, Bobby escaped injury.
The race was red-flagged for over two hours while the fence was rebuilt.
When the race restarted Bobby’s son Davey, a rookie driver with Harry Ranier’s team, picked up where he left off.
He dominated the race but at the end, Terry gave him a real run for his money. Our Budweiser Chevrolet finished less than one second behind Davey.
No one had to tell me what NASCAR was going to do next. It had plainly seen the dangers of increasing, unbridled speed and had to do something about it.
If the situation had been only slightly worse – say if Bobby’s car had broken through the fence and into the crowd – I’m not sure if there would be a NASCAR today.
I have a strong feeling NASCAR felt the same. Almost immediately it enforced restrictor plates for races at Daytona and Talladega. And they are with us to this day.
Afterward, Terry continued to be steady. He finished among the top 10 in seven of the next 10 races, including a third place at Dover and a runnerup finish on the road course at Watkins Glen.
However, the 10th race following Talladega was at Michigan, where we suffered a broken water pump and Terry finished 33rd – his worst showing of the year.
Michigan was on Aug. 6. There would be 10 more races over less than four months before the season was over.
And we still hadn’t won a single race.