The narrow loss for the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup championship to Alan Kulwicki – by 10 points, the closest margin in NASCAR history – was an obvious blow to Johnson, driver Bill Elliott and the entire Junior Johnson & Associates team.
Had the team pulled it off, it would have been the sixth title of Johnson’s career as an owner.
Instead, Johnson had to look to 1993 as a year of redemption. Elliott, of course, was still with the team so there seemed to be no reason it could not contend, once again, for a title.
But 1993 was going to be a far different season than 1992 – for several reasons. First, Johnson was offered another major sponsorship, which he accepted to form, again, a second team.
And then, Johnson wasn’t around for a couple of the first races of the season. No one knew why.
It evolved that he had to deal with a major health situation.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.
Losing the 1992 championship was a very bitter pill for me to swallow.
Bill had come so close. At Atlanta, the last race of the year, the problem was he didn’t know exactly when to pit as we got halfway through the race.
That was crucial because Alan led a pile of laps – and believe me, I knew exactly what he was doing. He was racing for those bonus points.
We had to cut him off. We had to pit when he did. Instead, we pitted two laps later. That gave Alan the advantage.
And to this day I know it was because our radios were acting up. Bill wasn’t getting the message.
I blame myself, really. I could have told Bill what to do but by the time I could speak on the radio it was too late.
However, as I thought about it, 1992 was the most productive season for Junior Johnson & Associates since Darrell won seven races in 1984 – and he didn’t win the title that year. He won it in 1985.
We had a quality association with Bill and maybe that would be good enough to win the title in 1993.
The season, however, brought a couple of major changes.
In 1993 I got a sizable sponsorship offer from McDonald’s, which, of course, I took. Bill retained the Budweiser backing, which meant that I again had a two-car team.
I hired Hut Stricklin, an Alabama boy, to drive the McDonald’s car. Stricklin had spent the previous couple of seasons racing with Bobby Allison’s team and I thought he had potential.
That was a big change for Junior Johnson & Associates, but there was a far bigger one.
I had heart surgery. That surprised just about everyone, which is what I wanted. I wanted to keep everything as quiet as possible. I certainly didn’t need any press of publicity.
The surgery took place three days after the GM Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham on Feb. 28, the third race of the season.
Actually, I thought I had been dealing with bouts of indigestion. I had a burning sensation in my chest soon after eating.
But the diagnosis surprised both me and my wife Lisa. I had an artery blockage – it sure wasn’t indigestion.
Now, I had been diagnosed with artery blockage twice since 1975. But this time, the doctors at Duke University Hospital said that I was going to have to have an angioplasty.
Well, it seems that one of my main arteries, the one under my left arm, was crooked so badly it was almost L-shaped. The doctors couldn’t get a needle through it.
They tried for four or five hours to do the angioplasty but couldn’t get it done. So they talked about doing a bypass.
I underwent the procedure the next day. I recovered so well I was home in four days instead of the expected seven. I was back at the shop two days after I got home.
I was back at the track, Darlington, on Marcy 28, just 25 days after the operation.
While my health improved our on-track performance did not.
The sponsors were putting pressure on me. They remembered Bill’s terrific streak of four wins in the first five races of 1993. But what happened in 1992 didn’t have a thing to do with what happened in 1993.
Still, I was pressured by Budweiser to make some changes; changes I wasn’t about to make.
Look, I can understand a sponsor’s concerns. I myself had plenty during the first races of 1993, but given my health situation, there was only so much I could do.
Bill had only two top-five finishes in the first five races of the year – and they came in the first two events. He finished no higher than 15th in the next three.
Hut had only two top-10 finishes in the first five races. However, he was far better off in points. He was 13th and Bill was a distant 23rd.
I reasoned that it could have all been different if I hadn’t missed a couple of races.
As it turned out, that probably wouldn’t have made any difference at all.