Junior Johnson is an iconic figure in American motorsports. After years of hauling illegal liquor across the Southeast as a young man, he pursued a NASCAR driving career in which he won 50 races. Later, as an owner, his teams won 132 races and three championships. He was named one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR and in 2010 was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of its inaugural class.
Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
There’s always talk about drivers who strive to be consistent and even run for points instead of wins – and the funny thing is, fans want to see NASCAR reward drivers who win with more points.
When I raced points didn’t concern me. I raced for the wins because that’s where the money was. I never dealt with an owner who told me to race for points.
And when I became an owner, I won championships, but it was never any of my drivers’ styles to race for points.
The idea was to try to win every race. The more you won, the more points you got and the more championships you earned.
Just about every driver I employed was a leadfoot.
There was Bobby Allison in 1972. We had a battle with Richard Petty for the championship, which would have been Bobby’s first.
We won 10 races. But the reason we didn’t win the championship happened at Talladega. Bobby ran about 10-12 laps and then we burned an oil line. We brought the car in to get it fixed.
We had the car ready to go again in just 12 laps. Now, this was in the day when NASCAR paid 1.5 bonus points for every lap completed. We were ready to go out and get those points, and there were a lot of them out there. I think there were 150 laps left in the race and that meant a lot of points.
But we couldn’t find Bobby. Turns out he had gotten into his car and driven home.
Heck, I got into the car myself. I was ready to drive in relief. But the rules said a driver had to practice before he would be allowed to relieve.
I hadn’t done that. Even though I was ready to race NASCAR wouldn’t let me. We lost the championship by 128 points.
In 1973, Cale Yarborough came on board. He had a very heavy foot, just as I had when I raced.
We won three consecutive championships (1976-78) using Cale’s style.
But, to support a driver like Cale, you had to have a better car than others – make that you had to have a car twice as good as the others.
I had really good people working for me, but I also worked on the cars myself. I could do anything that was needed. I’d lay some work on others, show them how to do it, and then go on and do something else.
I always wanted to be certain we had the best possible cars for Cale. We had to.
Darrell Waltrip joined me in 1981 and we won three championships (in 1982, ’83 and ’85). Where Cale was wide-open and hell-bent to win races, Darrell was a bit savvier on the track.
You might say Darrell was a more psychological driver. He could figure out how to win a race without taking a chance of getting into a wreck and stuff like that. If he had to go, he certainly could go. But he didn’t want to do that just to be doing it, although he still wanted to win every race.
Bill Elliott’s first year with me was 1992. He had already won a championship and I thought he was just the kind of driver who could win another with me.
We had a real shot in ’92, but we lost it when Alan Kulwicki led one more lap than we did at the last race of the year in Atlanta. Alan won the championship by 10 points.
Really, it was our fault. Bill came into the pits early when he wasn’t called. I remember we had radio problems.
Tim Brewer, the crew chief, wasn’t looking after what he was supposed to be looking after. He was doing something else. To tell the truth, we lost the championship by not doing our damn jobs.
After 1995, I got out of the sport. There was just too much politics for me. I was also doing all the negotiations with sponsors and other business and that wore me down.
I’m glad I got out, but now that I’m back in it helping my son Robert with his racing career, I can see how everything has changed and what the sport has become.
Racing is more of a rich man’s sport than it used to be. It takes a lot of money to get into it. You need big sponsors and things like that and I don’t know if that’s good or bad for the sport.
It’s grown so much it’s now up against football, baseball and all that stuff. That sort of thing was never a part of racing while I was in it.
NASCAR has the top motorsports in the world. It’s gotten bigger and bigger – but it has taken more and more money to get it to where it is today.
If a single person with a small budget wanted to get into it today, well, that’s impossible.