JUNIOR JOHNSON: Competitiveness Worse In 1995 And With Sale, The End Comes

Although Junior Johnson’s teams won three races in 1994, his sponsors left at the end of the season, which left him with some difficult decisions to make for 1995.

Even though his Junior Johnson & Associates team rebounded in 1994 with three victories, its existence was threatened at the end of the season when its two sponsors – Budweiser and McDonald’s – departed.

Johnson almost departed, too. He wasn’t sure the work and effort required to raise sponsorship money and find a capable driver was worth it.

But he struck a deal with Lowe’s. And as his sponsor, the firm wanted to bring in Brett Bodine as the driver and the replacement for Jimmy Spencer.

Johnson had little choice but to agree. But it left him with a keen sense of doubt as to how competitive his team would be in 1995.

He was right. The team was not competitive, not by any means.

Then Johnson got the opportunity to sell. He had done so in the past but the team, at some point, had always returned to his control.

This time, however, it would be different; very different.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

While Junior Johnson & Associates did win in 1994 – Jimmy won twice and Bill once – it could have been better. But, by the end of the year, things were worse.

I’ve already said how I lost both my sponsors. My contracts with Budweiser and McDonald’s had run out at the end of ’94.

For the ’95 season, Johnson acquired Lowe’s as his sponsor and the company wanted Brett Bodine to be the driver. Bodine replaced Jimmy Spencer for the season.

McDonald’s came back with an offer based on performance. My team had to win a certain number of races and a certain number of pole positions to get money.

I couldn’t touch that deal and no one with any sense would. As I have said, I was told to take it or leave it. So I left it.

I thought about quitting racing. I thought about it long and hard. Many of the people who worked for me were discouraged.

And I, personally, had begun to think racing had become too much of a cutthroat business in which costs were rising constantly.

To stay in the sport I had to find both a sponsor and a driver.

I decided to press on. There were several sponsor possibilities of various amounts but I decided to go with Lowe’s. It was a hardware and home improvement company that was started in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

I tried to keep Jimmy as my driver. But the folks at Lowe’s wanted Brett Bodine because they thought he was better at public relations.

I wanted to tell them that public relations does not win races. But it was their money, so what choice did I have?

I don’t know if there was ever a season that gave me as much doubt about our how we would perform than 1995.

When the season started, I wasn’t enthused. I thought the team’s potential was low – and I had never felt that way before.

I knew Brett was a capable driver but, and let’s face it, he hadn’t been able to establish himself as a regular winner, like so many others who had driven for me – Bobby, Cale, Darrell, Bill and even Brett’s brother, Geoff.

Sure enough, the season started badly and got worse. The real problem was that Brett and our crew chief, Mike Beam, were often at odds, which certainly didn’t help matters at all.

Mike left about halfway through the season – ironically, he joined Bill’s team – and we replaced him with Dean Combs. Dean had done some driving in his time and was an able mechanic.

Dean did a good job for us but by the time he came on, honestly, everything was too far gone for anyone to save.

Brett finished in the top 10 twice in 31 races. He wound up 20th in points. I certainly don’t blame him for all of this, but it was the worst-ever record for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Lowe’s was a good sponsor but we just couldn’t win for them.

I pondered getting out of the sport. The questions were how and when was I going to do it?

About halfway through the season Brett came to me and asked me if I would be willing to sell the team.

Well, I had sold it twice before – to the Carling Brewery people and Warner Hodgdon – and had gotten it back. So I said I’d sell it again.

I tried to base my team on the money I was paid for sponsorship. But when I was forced to take all the winnings and plow them back into the team, and then go into my own pockets because there wasn’t enough cash to support the team, there were only two things I could do.

I could shut the team down or I could sell it.

I chose to sell it because it’s not profitable to shut it down.

Lowe’s felt Brett could turn the team around if he owned it and had the say-so to do what he wanted. So the deal was to put Lowe’s money behind him and let him run with it.

Basically, I was selling the team to Lowe’s, which was fine with me.

The deal was official on Nov. 22, 1995. With Lowe’s money Brett bought everything – trucks, cars, equipment, motors, anything that was inside the shops.

Afterward, I didn’t feel any temptation to return to racing. Oh, I got offers but they were low ones – certainly not enough to run a top-flight team.

I could do one of two things: Take the lowball offers and suffer competitively or get out of racing.

I got out.

And I never looked back.

That was then. This is now. I think I might have more stories to tell.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Mediocrity Continues And The End Seems Near

Junior Johnson wanted the 1994 season to be far better than 1993, when neither of his teams won a race. Victories returned in ’94, but Johnson wasn’t satisfied.

After a disastrous 1993 season, in which neither of Junior Johnson’s two teams won a race, Johnson resolved to make 1994 a better year.

It involved change. Jimmy Spencer, an acknowledged aggressive driver, replaced Hut Stricklin as Bill Elliott’s teammate.

Spencer won two races for Johnson in 1994 while Elliott won just one. Although it was an improvement over 1993 – however small – it wasn’t enough for Johnson.

However, he did not know if he could make things better in 1995. As the 1994 season ended, so did Johnson’s contracts with Budweiser and McDonald’s.

If negotiations with the two sponsors were not successful, Johnson knew his days as a two-team owner would come to an end.

And, he wondered, where would he go from there?

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

I was determined that the 1994 season be a vast improvement over 1993.

And how hard could it be to accomplish that?  After all, neither of my teams won in ’93 and that was the first time in 27 years that a Junior Johnson & Associates team went winless.

Heck, if one of my teams won just once in 1994, that would be an improvement, wouldn’t it?

Jimmy Spencer joined Johnson’s team as Bill Elliott’s teammate in 1994. Spencer won two races that year on NASCAR’s two biggest speedways.

I hired Jimmy Spencer to replace Hut Stricklin for 1994. He would be Bill’s newest teammate. Spencer was the third driver I hired in four seasons. I was always looking for my kind of competitor and I figured Spencer was it.

He was nicknamed “Mr. Excitement,” largely because he was an aggressive driver. I knew that and so did everyone else in the garage area. I thought he would be a good fit.

To tell the truth he was – and he wasn’t. Let me explain.

Jimmy won twice for Junior Johnson & Associates, both times in July and on restrictor-plate tracks.

He won the Pepsi Firecracker 400 at Daytona and the DieHard 500 at Talladega. His aggressive style was suited for the superspeedways.

However, Jimmy didn’t finish 11 races. We had engine problems five times and Jimmy crashed six more times – and it wasn’t always his fault.

He finished with two wins, three top-five finishes and four among the top 10. He was 29th in the point standings.

I would love to say Bill did a lot better, but he barely quenched his losing drought from 1994.

However, Bill did win. He won the Southern 500 at Darlington in September, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race and one of its most prestigious events.

You know, I don’t care what kind of season you’re having as an owner. If you can say your driver won the Southern 500, well, you’ve had a good year.

But I’ll be honest. In this case, “good” wasn’t enough for me. Bill finished the season with one victory. He had six top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes. He ranked 10th in points at season’s end.

I know Bill expected better things and so did I.

But to be honest, I was almost certain they were not going to happen in 1995.

By the end of 1994 I knew both of my sponsors were leaving.

Our contracts were up for renegotiation at the end of the year. McDonald’s came back to me with an incentive deal for 1995.

It meant that sponsorship was contingent upon performance. My team had to win a certain number of races and a certain number of pole positions to get money.

I couldn’t take a deal like that. There are very few people who could. I don’t know of anyone who is a businessperson who would.

I was told take it or leave it, so I left it.

Budweiser had already made a deal with Bill for 1995, but when he found out that McDonald’s was free, he dropped Budweiser and hooked up with them.

Losing Budweiser and McDonald’s disturbed me. To tell the truth, I was ready to get out of racing. And some of the people who worked for me had reached the point where they didn’t care any more.

To keep racing, I had to find a driver and a sponsor. There were some possibilities when it came to financial backing, but I decided to go with Lowe’s, a hardware and home improvement company that was founded in North Wilkesboro.

I wanted Jimmy to stay on as my driver but Lowe’s said it preferred Brett Bodine because it thought he had better public relations skills.

As the 1995 season rolled around, I admit I didn’t have much enthusiasm. I thought the team’s potential was low.

I began to have a sense that the end was near.

 

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Bleak, Winless 1993 Campaign Marred By Tragedy

In 1993, Junior Johnson spent 25 days away from the speedways for heart surgery. During his absence, and when he returned, things did not go well competitively.

Although he could not have anticipated it at the time, the 1993 NASCAR Winston Cup season would rank as one of the worst for Junior Johnson and his Junior Johnson & Associates organization.

With two drivers, Bill Elliott and Hut Stricklin, things did not start well. Neither driver won in in the first five races of the year.

That might have been due to the absence of Johnson’s leadership, which was brought about by a needed heart bypass. It kept him away for 25 days.

But when he got back things did not improve.

Elliott and Stricklin were struggling. And matters were not helped when Johnson found himself in disagreement with his long-time sponsor, Budweiser.

As if that wasn’t enough the season was marred by two tragedies that affected not only Johnson, but all of NASCAR as well.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

As I’ve said, the 1993 NASCAR Winston Cup season brought many changes to Junior Johnson & Associates and to me, personally.

I had Bill with the Budweiser sponsorship again and I picked up some backing from McDonald’s that allowed me to form a second team with Hut Stricklin as my driver.

Hut had been driving for Bobby Allison’s team and I thought he had potential.

Bill Elliott didn’t win a race in 1993, easily his worst outing for Johnson, and may have been distracted by an offer to form his own team.

The season hardly got started before I learned I had to have heart surgery. It took place three days after the Rockingham race on Feb. 28.

At first I was to have an angioplasty, but that couldn’t be done. So I underwent a bypass.

I was back at Darlington, 25 days after the operation. My health improved greatly. To be honest I felt better than I had in a long, long time.

Bill had only two top-five finishes in the first five races of the year. Hut had only two top-10 finishes in the first five races. Hut was 13th in points and Bill a distant 23rd.

It was certainly the worst start to a season for Junior Johnson & Associates that I could recall. The only explanation I could come up with was that, perhaps, the team missed my direction and would improve now that I was back.

Then all turned to black at the sixth race of the year, at Bristol.

Alan Kulwicki, the reigning Winston Cup champion who had won the title by a mere 10 points over Bill in 1992, was killed in an airplane crash on April 1. He was on his way to Bristol.

A twin-engine Merlin crashed in Blountville, Tenn., with Alan and three associates on board. No one survived.

Alan’s car was withdrawn from the Bristol race and his transporter made two memorial laps around the track before it left the speedway.

All of us witnessed it. I don’t think any other single thing in racing struck more emotion in me than what happened at Bristol on that cold, misty morning.

I admired Alan. I had tried to hire him. He showed his considerable skill and racing savvy when he won the 1992 title by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

I can assure you that almost no one felt like racing. I remember Rusty Wallace saying that his heart wasn’t in it. And Dale Jarrett added that he didn’t even want to be in Bristol.

By no means were Bill and Hut enthusiastic. And, in a way, that showed in the results. Bill crashed early and finished 30th. Hut didn’t fare much better. He wound up 23rd.

Things just weren’t going well. I mean, over the years Junior Johnson & Associates could be counted upon to win, or at least do very well, on the short tracks – Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Nashville, Richmond and, yes, Bristol.

This time we couldn’t even crack the top 20.

It didn’t help that my association with long-time sponsor Budweiser had begun to crumble.

I’ve already said it wanted me to make changes that I did not find acceptable.

Later, about two-thirds through the season, I got the word that Budweiser wanted Bill to quit and form his own team. If he did that, it would sponsor him.

Of course, Bill didn’t do that.

As if one tragedy in 1993 wasn’t enough, a second one evolved when Davey Allison died from injuries received in a helicopter crash at Talladega on July 12. Davey and Red Farmer had flown to the track to watch Neil Bonnett and his son David practice.

Davey died early the next morning.

This struck another emotional chord within me. How could it not? Davey’s team owner was Robert Yates, one of the most talented engine builders I ever employed.

And his father Bobby drove for me in 1972 and gave us – and Chevrolet – one of our best seasons with 10 victories.

Just as we wouldn’t know what Alan might have achieved in the future, we wouldn’t know what Davey could have done, either.

Those tragedies contributed to the bleakest season for Junior Johnson & Associates in decades.

We didn’t win a race. Bill managed to finish eighth in points with 15 top-10 finishes. Hut was 24th with only three top-10 finishes.

It was the first time since 1966 that a car I owned failed to win a race. That was a span of 27 years.

I could not accept that.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Professional, Personal Changes Put Pressure On 1993 Performance

After narrowly losing the championship in 1992, Bill Elliott returned to Junior Johnson & Associates for the 1993 season with the idea of winning the title.

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.

With new McDonald’s sponsorship, Johnson formed a second team and his choice for driver was Alabama native Hut Stricklin.

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.

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Victory In Final Race Of 1992 Not Enough To Earn Championship

Driving for Junior Johnson, Bill Elliott came into the last race of the 1992 season third in points. His only hope for a championship was to run as hard as he could – and win if possible.

Bill Elliott’s chances to win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship in 1992 took a hit with an unfortunate performance at Phoenix, just a week before the season’s final race at Atlanta.

He wasn’t out of contention, it was just going to be harder. He came to Atlanta third in points, 40 behind leader Davey Allison and 10 behind Alan Kulwicki.

There was no doubt about Elliott’s strategy. He had to race as hard as he could and hope Allison, and even Kulwicki, experienced misfortune.

Elliott did exactly what he had to do. And, as fate would have it, Allison was caught up in a wreck that eliminated him from championship consideration.

Elliott won at Atlanta to earn his fifth victory of the season. Under most circumstances he would have been the champion.

But on Nov. 15, 1992, there existed the most unusual circumstances at Atlanta.

And they helped contribute to NASCAR lore.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday for most of the season.

Going into the final race of the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup season – the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway – I would have felt a lot better about our chances for a championship if we hadn’t fallen on our face a week before at Phoenix.

Bill’s Ford began smoking early. He didn’t lead a lap. He made numerous pit stops but we couldn’t fix the problem.

Bill finished 31st and Davey won the race. As a result of all of that, Bill fell out of the lead in points and gave way to Davey.

Going into Atlanta, Davey was in first place, 40 points ahead of Bill. Alan finished fourth at Phoenix and moved into second place, 30 points behind Davey and 10 points ahead of Bill.

That meant that all Davey had to do was finish fifth or better and the championship was his.

Bill and Alan had no choice. Each of them had to run as hard as they could and hope that Davey faltered.

It was not the best situation for Junior Johnson & Associates. But I will say this – the team had run all out in several races and, many times, it paid off handsomely.

Being able to lead one more lap than Elliott in the Hooters 500 at Atlanta meant that Alan Kulwicki was able to claim the 1992 Winston Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

It had to do it one more time.

I’ve already talked about how the Hooters 500 was going to be the last race of Richard Petty’s glorious career. That was going to prompt many fans to come to the Hooters 500, no doubt about that.

But I think more scrutiny was going to be paid to the championship battle. Three drivers had a shot at the title and what they did – or what happened to them – in the Atlanta race was clearly going to determine the outcome.

Qualifying wasn’t spectacular for any of the three drivers. Bill took the 11th position, Alan the 14th and Davey, well, he was 17th.

Maybe we held a small edge at the start of the race but when you have to cover 500 miles, where you start really doesn’t matter much.

Bill did exactly what he had to do. He sped into the lead on lap 62, swapped it with Alan a few times and then ran off a long string of laps led.

I was feeling pretty good about our chances, but not overly so.

See, while Bill pressed to the front, Davey kept hanging around in fifth place. If he kept that up he would be the 1992 champion no matter what Bill, or Alan, did.

Then, late in the race, it happened.

Davey was comfortably in fifth place when he was caught up in an accident when Ernie Irvan spun coming out of turn four on lap 254 of 328.

After extensive repairs Davey came back into the race but finished in 27th place and out of championship contention.

Before Davey’s accident, on lap 210, Bill pitted. When he did, Alan inherited the lead. Now, I figured, as did everyone else, that Alan was going to hold that lead as long as he could.

He was smart enough to realize that to lead the most laps would give him a five-point bonus and enhance his chances to win the title.

Alan led laps 210-310. Bill went back in the lead on lap 311 and then pitted on lap 314.

I could hardly believe it. He pitted too early. We needed to lead more laps.

For some reason, we were having trouble with our radio communication. Bill got on the radio and kept asking, “When do we pit? When do we pit?”

When we talked back to him Bill didn’t seem to understand. He’d come back and say, “Did you say to pit? When do you want me to pit?”

It was all very confusing. I think Bill decided he was to come in on lap 314, which he did.

But if he had stayed out just two more laps, things would have been different.

When I saw him pit early I knew we had lost the title unless something happened to Alan.

Bill did retake the lead on lap 316 and he led the rest of the way to earn his fifth victory of the season. He did all he could do.

Alan finished second. He led 103 laps. Bill led 102.

Both of them earned 180 points but Alan got the five-point bonus for leading the most laps. Had Bill led the most laps he would have gotten 185 points to 175 for Alan and they would have tied for the title.

But the championship would go to Bill on the tiebreaker, which was the number of victories. He had five to Alan’s two.

That, however, is not how it turned out. Alan won the title with 4,078 points to Bill’s 4,068. That 10-point separation was the closest in NASCAR history.

I blame myself. I could have gotten on the radio and taken control of the situation. But Bill pitted before I could do that.

After the victory lane ceremonies, which were dampened for me because we lost the title, I went back to my motel room.

And I got out of Atlanta as quickly as I could.

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Stage Set For Historic Battle For 1992 Championship

Davey Allison was Bill Elliott’s biggest challenger for the Winston Cup championship in 1992. It evolved that at the last race of the year at Atlanta, Allison was the points leader.

With two races remaining in the 1992 season, Junior Johnson felt a sense of comfort that his driver, Bill Elliott, could win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

Elliott held a 70-point lead over Davey Allison and he was 80 ahead of Alan Kulwicki. The three were the only drivers with a realistic shot at the title.

Of course, Johnson realized that things could change in just one race. But it was hard to anticipate that Elliott, who had already won four races, would fall victim to bad luck.

But at Phoenix, the race before the finale at Atlanta, that is exactly what happened.

What seemed to be a cakewalk for Junior Johnson & Associates turned into desperate struggle with two other drivers.

History would take notice.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

As I’ve said before, late in the year, I thought Junior Johnson & Associates was in very good shape to win the 1992 Winston Cup championship.

After the 27th race of the season – at Rockingham, where Bill finished fifth – we had a 70-point margin over Davey, who finished 10th and 80 points over Alan, who finished 12th.

By the way, Alan did a fine job of putting himself into championship consideration. He had wrecked at Dover and fell 278 points behind Bill, who was in the lead and 154 points ahead of Davey – at the time.

However, in the space of four races Alan had come on like gangbusters, as the old cliché goes. He made up 198 points and moved from fourth to third in the standings.

He was right in the middle of the scrap for the championship and I had to admire him for his effort.

But as I’ve already indicated, it didn’t think there would be a “scrap” of any kind. All we had to do was race safe and avoid trouble and the points would come.

Alan Kulwicki stormed back into championship contention late in 1992 and became part of a three-driver showdown with Allison and Elliott in the season’s final race.

Then the bottom fell out.

At Phoenix, the next-to-last race of the season, we ran into disaster.

Bill didn’t lead a lap and very early in the race, his Ford began smoking. He made numerous pit stops but we couldn’t solve the problem.

The only thing Bill could do was limp around the track at a reduced speed, which is what he did. He finished 31st.

To make matters worse, Davey won the race. It was his fifth victory of the season.

Davey leapt over Bill in the standings. After Phoenix, Davey was 40 points ahead of Bill. To make matters worse, Alan finished fourth at Phoenix and moved into second place, 30 behind Davey and 10 ahead of Bill.

In one race Bill had fallen from the points lead to third place. Now, we knew this could happen but we never expected it.

Bill said that anything could happen in one race and, of course, he was right. After Phoenix, he also said he felt he wasn’t out of the championship picture – but said he really wasn’t in it, either.

As for the engine problem at Phoenix, we discovered that the machinery that milled the cylinder heads didn’t mill the heads smoothly. It essentially gouged the head and caused the head gasket to fail.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just a case of incredibly bad luck. And, I might add, at a very bad time.

The final race of the year was the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With only 40 points separating the top three championship contenders, the track wasn’t going to have any problem selling tickets.

There was something else.

The race was going to be the last of Richard Petty’s distinguished career. All season long he had conducted his “Farewell Tour” and his legion of fans bought every piece of memorabilia they could.

I’m sure attendance at every race increased because many folks turned out to see Richard race one last time.

And I knew droves of them would be at Atlanta to see him compete in his final race.

As much as I admired Richard, and all he had accomplished in his career, I sure couldn’t pay him any attention.

Junior Johnson & Associates had work to do. No longer could we count on just piling up laps to win the championship.

Bill was no longer the leader with a healthy points margin. He was behind two other drivers and, somehow, had to make up a deficit of 40 points.

All Davey had to do was finish fifth and the title was his. Oh, yeah, I knew he could do that – easily.

Now, as calm as I might have been after Rockingham, I was downright edgy going into Atlanta.

Bill and Alan had to go all out at Atlanta if either one of them wanted to win the championship over Davey.

Essentially, they both HAD to win.

Well, one of them DID win.

But he didn’t become the champion.

How that came about helped make the 1992 Hooters 500 one of the greatest races in NASCAR history.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With Elliott On Board Came The Greatest Showdown In NASCAR History

In 1992, Bill Elliott drove for Junior Johnson and put together a solid performance that made him a championship contender virtually all season long.

When Junior Johnson hired Bill Elliott as one of his drivers in 1992 he felt very confident he had found the man who could bring him another championship.

Sure enough, Elliott was the hottest driver early in the season. He won four consecutive races – all in March of that year.

But that effort did not bring him and Junior Johnson & Associates the points lead. That belonged to Davey Allison, the Robert Yates Racing driver who won the Daytona 500 and finished among the top five in the next five events.

Johnson knew consistency was the key. That was what NASCAR’s point system rewarded.

Despite his hot start to the season, Elliott was not always consistent.

But it evolved that toward the end of the season, he had clawed his way into first place in the standings, ahead of Allison and a fading Alan Kulwicki – who was having his best career season.

It reached the point that with two races to go, all Elliott had to do was keep it all together and race for points.

It seemed a simple enough task.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.

 

Again, I’ll mention that in 1992, Bill won four races in a row during March and despite that, he still was not the points leader.

Davey Allison, who had a 98-point lead over Bill after Bill was involved in a wreck at Daytona, put together five top-five finishes in five races.

As a result, even after the victories, Bill could take away only 50 points from Davey’s lead.

The only reason I bring this up again is to emphasize the criticism the NASCAR point system received at that time.

The system rewarded consistency more than anything else. OK, fine, but shouldn’t victories count for more?

In 1984 Darrell Waltrip – driving for me – won seven races yet finished fifth in the point standings behind first-place Terry Labonte, who won just twice.

And in 1985, Darrell won three times and won the championship. Bill won 11 races and was an also-ran.

Davey Allison won the Daytona 500 in ’92 to put him atop the point standings. He remained among the leaders all season and was the favorite to win the title.

Darrell was delighted that he won the title, of course – it would be his last – but even he couldn’t understand how he did it.

“There’s not enough incentive to win,” Darrell said. “Bill should have been the Winston Cup champion in 1985.”

I knew that, the system being what it was, Junior Johnson & Associates could not afford a series of mediocre to bad finishes if it was to win the championship with Bill.

Heck, that was obvious after the early part of the ’92 season. Bill finished 27th at Daytona – where Davey won – and even after four straight wins, Bill still couldn’t overtake Davey in points.

It was obvious that Bill and my team could not make mistakes. Mistakes ruin consistency – and it was obvious consistency would win the title.

And if we could not be consistent, we had to hope that the teams we were fighting for the title were less consistent than we were.

I’ll give you a perfect example of that. In only the sixth race of the year, at Bristol, Bill had all kinds of problems.

He spun on the 31st lap after an incident with Ted Musgrave. He spent a lot of time in the pits while the guys made repairs and finished 20th.

But get this: Davey took a hard shot into the wall and broke an oil fitting. His car was ruined and he retired from the race in 29th place.

As a result, as rough a day as Bill had, he GAINED points. He was 48 behind Davey going into the race and just 29 behind, and in second place, afterward.

The championship strategy was obvious: Be consistent. If you can’t, be better than the other guy. Wins are great, but they don’t guarantee anything.

Junior Johnson & Associates was not the model of consistency. At the 10th race of the year, Charlotte, Bill had all kinds of problems and wound up in 14th place, four laps off the pace. He fell to 111 points behind Davey.

Things got a bit better at the next race, at Sonoma, where Bill finished fifth, well ahead of Davey, who was 28th.

That race was held on June 7, 1992 and that morning we got the word that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had passed away at his Ormond Beach, Fla., home.

My thoughts were not unlike virtually everyone else’s: Without him, we wouldn’t be here. It was that simple.

The season went reasonably well for Bill afterward. Maybe that is an understatement. By the 23rd race of the year, at Dover, Bill finished second to Ricky Rudd. Bill had already moved to first in points and after Dover he built up a 154-point lead over Davey.

No, Bill hadn’t won a race in a long time but his regained consistency was, obviously, proving very beneficial.

I felt very confident we were in line to win the title.

My confidence was re-enforced when Alan Kulwicki, who was having a great season, wrecked at Dover and fell well behind Bill and Davey in points – more than 200 points.

“I guess this finishes it for us,” Alan said.

Although he didn’t know it at the time – and I didn’t either – he was wrong.

Bill was in great shape after Rockingham, the 27th race of the year. He finished fifth – his first top-five in a month – and his point lead was 70 over Davey, who finished 10th, and 80 over Alan, who finished 12th.

There were two races to go. We were in comfortable shape.

I mean, if we could run like we did at Rockingham over the last two races, we would be in excellent shape.

We didn’t have to race hard. All we had to do was gain points.

I didn’t know it at the time but that was going to be difficult to do.

And I also didn’t know this: The season would end with perhaps the greatest championship showdown in NASCAR’s history.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: Drive For Another Championship In 1992

Junior Johnson had to make some wholesale changes for the 1992 season and one was to acquire Bill Elliott as one of his drivers. Junior felt strongly Elliott could win a championship.

Junior Johnson fully anticipated a stellar 1992 season. His driver lineup had changed. Sterling Marlin remained and was joined by Bill Elliott.

Elliott was an established superstar who had won the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Elliott was hugely popular.

Johnson thought he had found his man. In fact, so much so that he set his eyes on yet another championship. He felt Elliott was just the guy to help him achieve it.

Remarkably, Elliott won four of the season’s first five races but was NOT No. 1 in the point standings, which we designed to reward consistency.

Johnson knew immediately that while winning was nice, it had to be accompanied with high finishes in order to score maximum points.

That wasn’t going to be easy.

As time passed, that proved to be very, very true.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday for most of the season.

At the end of the 1991 season, I have to admit that I was at something of a crossroads.

Things just weren’t going as well and I had hoped. In ’91, my drivers didn’t fare all that well. Geoff Bodine won our only race and finished 14th in the point standings – granted, he was hampered by injury.

Sterling finished seventh in points and did not win a race.

In Junior’s Ford, Elliott started the 1992 season strongly. Although he stumbled at Daytona, the Georgia driver won the next four races in a row.

Geoff and Junior Johnson & Associates parted ways at the end of the ’91 and, honestly, it was for the best. Geoff did not like multi-car teams. He was convinced they couldn’t win.

To tell the truth after 1991 I was pretty close to reaching the same conclusion. But to make a wholesale change would be difficult. Sterling was still driving for me and I had commitments to sponsors.

Fortunately, I was able to sign a driver with impeccable credentials; one whom I strongly felt would make my team championship caliber.

I had followed Bill Elliott throughout his successful career. He came out of North Georgia and, at first, raced for his family’s team. Then he joined Harry Melling and in 1985 put together a remarkable season.

Bill won 11 superspeedway races that year. That hasn’t been done since.

And he should have won the championship, but he slipped up over the last part of the season and lost it to Darrell Waltrip, who was driving for me.

Got to admit that Darrell, a guy never at a lost for words, may have verbally rattled Bill a bit.

Bill went on to win the 1988 championship.

You know, I had tried to hire him long before 1991. But things never worked out. I kept my eye on him. After the 1991 season, I thought I had a chance. Bill won only one race (as he had in 1990) and finished a distant 12th in points.

I suspected he wasn’t too happy. He said he enjoyed his time with Melling but felt it was time to move on.

So, after some discussion, he agreed to become a part of Junior Johnson & Associates. He was very pleased.

I fully intended to run for the championship with Bill. He was the right guy to win championships.

Now, I didn’t have any problem with Dale Earnhardt, who seemed to beat up on everybody in the early ‘90s. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with his style.

But I knew he wasn’t going to continue to keep roughing people up and get away with it. I’d rather have a guy with finesse – and I was convinced Bill was that guy.

We got off to a great start. Bill qualified second for the Daytona 400 and Sterling won the pole. It was a Junior Johnson & Associates sweep.

But at the halfway point a wreck occurred among Bill, Sterling and Ernie Irvan while battling for the lead. You, Ernie seemed to have a way of being involved in numerous incidents.

That aside, the whole race was spoiled. We managed to patch up Bill’s Ford enough for him to get back on the track, but the best he could do was 27th.

I admit it wasn’t a good start towards a championship.

Then something happened that even I could not have imaged.

Bill won the next four races in a row – that’s right, in a row.

He won at Richmond when he beat a charging Alan Kulwicki by less that a foot.

He pulled away from the field to win at Rockingham.

Bill got great gas mileage and a timely late caution flag to win at Atlanta.

Bill won at Darlington virtually unchallenged.

He had won all the races in March and 80 percent of the races in 1992. But here’s something you are not going to believe:

He was NOT leading the point standings. It was hard for anyone, including me, to figure out why he wasn’t No. 1.

It was because of NASCAR’s point system. It was geared toward consistency. It rewarded drivers who piled up good finishes week after week and stayed out of trouble – avoiding DNFs.

So while Bill was winning, Davey Allison put together five consecutive top-five finishes in five races.

After Daytona, Allison had a 98-point lead over Bill, who was able to chop off only 50 points with his four wins.

A lot of folks felt NASCAR’s system should change to reward more points for victories. I was one of them.

But it was what it was and we knew what we had to do to win a championship.

I still felt 1992 was going to be our season.

It turned out to be one of the most dramatic, singular seasons in NASCAR’s history.

 

 

 

Junior Johnson: 1991 Season Lead To Major Decisions For 1992

Junior Johnson ran a two-car operation in 1991 and figured to do well. However, the season was a mediocre one highlighted by penalties enforced by NASCAR.

Junior Johnson & Associates had good reason to think the 1991 NASCAR Winston Cup season would be a good one.

Geoff Bodine, already a winner, was on board and joined by Sterling Marlin, who was sponsored by Maxwell House. Marlin, however, was not Johnson’s first choice.

The fiercely independent Alan Kulwicki refused Junior’s offers to become of his drivers. Junior has always said that if Kulwicki had come on board, records would be broken.

Nevertheless, Junior had a stout lineup.

But performance was anything but stout. Junior Johnson & Associates earned only one victory in 1991 and put only one driver – Marlin – in the top 10 points.

Furthermore, the organization was accused of cheating – more than once. NASCAR slapped it with suspensions. It was always under scrutiny.

Junior was not happy. By the end of 1991 he knew he had to take a new direction.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday for most of 2013.

I’ve said before that I was hoping for good things in the 1991 NASCAR Winston Cup season.

Sterling Marlin came on board as a driver for my two-car team. He joined Geoff Bodine, who, I might add, wasn’t really overjoyed at having a teammate.

But two cars was the way to go, especially if both had sponsors, as I did in Budweiser and Maxwell House. Expenses and information could be shared. It was very economical and Hendrick Motorsports, for example, had made good use of it.

Did I say I was hoping for good things in 1991? I sure as blazes didn’t get them.

This, for example:

NASCAR accused Junior Johnson & Associates, once again, for racing with an oversized engine in The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Tommy Ellis, a Late Model Sportsman driver, was racing my car because Geoff had suffered a punctured lung and three cracked ribs during practice.

Three hours after the race NASCAR declared our Ford was equipped with an oversize engine. They said it measured 362.351 cubic inches, which is well above the legal 358 cubic inch maximum.

Sterling Marlin joined Johnson as a teammate to Geoff Bodine in 1991. Marlin did not win a race but he did finish seventh in the point standings.

I tried to explain that the incident was a freak occurrence. One of my engine builders was building two engines at a time. Now there was a shortage of engine blocks at the time and we could not afford to give up a block if it was a little oversized.

To get to the point, my builder built one engine with a longer stroke and a smaller bore. The other – a shorter stroke and a larger bore.

A long-stroke crankshaft was put in the engine with the large-bore block. That’s all it took to be as oversized as it was.

NASCAR suspended me and crew chief Tim Brewer for four races.

What the hell? The Winston was an exhibition race. It didn’t award any points. We didn’t take anything away from anyone.

Not only that, we finished so far back in the race – 14th out of 20th – that it didn’t really matter.

I felt the penalty was a grudge penalty. It wasn’t anything else. What a farce.

Well, we got past the suspensions, but overall, things didn’t get much better.

Geoff earned just one victory, in the Mello Yello 500 in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Oh, yeah, we were accused of cheating there. This was getting to be a habit.

Geoff was able to finish the last 114 of 500 miles without refueling, a distance other drivers could not match.

Davey Allison, driving for Robert Yates Racing, was the leader when he was forced to pit with 17 laps remaining. That let Geoff take the lead and he held it for the rest of the race.

A lot of fingers were pointed at us. Other teams were certain we had an illegal gas tank. But NASCAR conducted a post-race inspection and determined the tank was legal. So it let the matter drop.

I think what made the difference is that we used a very conservative rear end gear. It gave us an extra gallon.

I was glad when the 1991 season came to an end. It wasn’t a good one. Between them, Geoff and Sterling won a single race.

NASCAR and others hammered us that we weren’t following the rules.

OK, so I’m cheating and my team wins only one race? Give me a break.

Sterling, winless, finished seventh in the point standings and Geoff, who was hampered by injury, wound up in 14th place.

I wasn’t used to this sort of thing.

I began to think that maybe I should make some wholesale changes. It even crossed my mind to get out of NASCAR altogether. The 1991 season had been relatively unproductive and a real hassle.

I knew Geoff was going to leave at the end of 1991. He never really liked the two-car scenario. He told me that we had good seasons together and that he wished we could have won more. He added it was a good time in his career.

Sterling, of course, was going to stay.

The situation was this: If I was going to stay in racing, I had to find another driver to keep the two-car operation going.

I found one, all right. Oh, boy, did I find one.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: 1991 – Bodine, Marlin Unite With High Hopes

In 1991, Junior Johnson returned to a two-team operation when Sterling Marlin was brought on as second driver with Maxwell House Coffee as the sponsor.

At the end of 1990, after Geoff Bodine helped Junior Johnson & Associates have its best season since 1986, it was decided to give Bodine another season behind Johnson’s Fords.

But big changes happened for 1991.

In the highly competitive, and more expensive, world of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, teams were scrambling to find the type of sponsorship that would allow them to keep pace with advancing technology, among other things.

As others had done before him, Johnson decided to form a second team in order to curb expenses. He had done the same thing in the mid-‘80s with drivers Neil Bonnett and Darrell Waltrip.

Johnson found a sponsor for his second team. He knew which driver he wanted – the one that had refused him two years earlier.

Johnson sincerely believed that particular driver could achieve superstar status with Junior Johnson & Associates. So he made many handsome offers.

They didn’t work.

So for 1991, Johnson had to rely on his second choice, Sterling Marlin, and see just how well he and Bodine would perform.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

I’ve said more than once that, unlike my previous contractual practices, I signed Geoff Bodine to a one-year deal in 1990.

I had my reasons and, yes, Geoff’s reputation as headstrong and contrary had something to do with it.

But together we had been productive and in 1990. We won three races and finished third in the point standings. That was the best Junior Johnson & Associates had done since Darrell was with us in 1986, his last championship season.

So I decided to give Geoff another year.

But there would be big changes.

I was going to return to a two-car operation. I felt I had to do so.

After one season as Johnson’s only driver, Geoff Bodine was required to be one of two in 1991, a situation that he didn’t like at all.

I was having a problem with a few things. It had reached the point where a one-car team was difficult to finance. By that I mean it was difficult to do everything you had to do to keep up in racing.

You had to test extensively, you had to do research and development. You could not do that with one team.

There were just so many things you had to do, however, one car could not afford to do them.

I reasoned that with two cars expenses could be contained. One team could perform research and development work and report the results to the other, for example.

That would give both teams all the benefits at the cost of one.

It had to be the way to go. And I admit I had seen it work pretty well with Rick Hendrick’s teams.

Ironically, it was a Hendrick two-car arrangement that Geoff left to join me. I knew darn well that he wasn’t going to be happy.

At that time few drivers wanted to be a part of a two-car team. I know things have changed over the years but back then, it was strictly a no-no for a go-go.

Even with cost sharing a two-car team needs an additional sponsor. I had Budweiser but I had to have additional funding.

I got it when Maxwell House Coffee agreed to back a second Junior Johnson & Associates team.

Now I needed a driver.

I knew who I wanted. I had tried hard to get him just a year earlier.

Like so many others I remained intrigued by Alan Kulwicki.

When I offered him a ride before the 1990 season he refused because he wanted to continue to own, and drive, for his own team.

He wanted to keep up what he was doing and see it through to success. He said then that if he joined me it would make him feel like a quitter.

So Alan kept doing his thing and he did it quite well. In 1990 he won his first career race and finished ninth in the point standings.

I had seen him achieve success with an under-funded team. Given that, I knew he was a hard-working, determined young man.

You take that and give him a little time off from everything he had to do and, well, you’ve got a superstar.

I felt I had an excellent chance to bring Alan to Junior Johnson & Associates. At the end of 1990, he was struggling to find sponsorship and his team was going to be in trouble if the money for 1991 couldn’t be found.

I made several handsome offers to Alan. So many, in fact, it reached the point where I had to look at my sponsorship and figure how much money I could pay a driver.

There was a limit I could pay. So I had to reluctantly give up on Alan and I signed Sterling Marlin.

Ironically, one of the reasons Alan refused me was that he was certain he had a sponsor lined up for 1991, with which he could continue his independent ways.

When he told me that I had to be honest. “No, Alan,” I said, “you do not have that sponsor.”

Alan insisted he did.

I tried to persuade him that he didn’t. That sponsor, Maxwell House, had already signed with me. I had a contract with them. I’m not sure Alan ever believed me.

But I understood Alan’s position. He felt he had the money he needed and wanted to do his own thing – perfectly logical.

Alan did get a sponsor and continued to race in 1991.

With Geoff and Sterling on board I was hoping for good things in the ’91 season. Well, there were some good moments, but certainly the numbers indicated Junior Johnson & Associates had anything but a good year.

It can’t be a good season when my highlight was being accused by NASCAR, once again, for racing with an oversized engine at The Winston.

How could I have had an oversized engine when our Chevrolet finished 14th in a 20-car field?

NASCAR suspended crew chief Tim Brewer and me for four races.

It was a farce.

That, and the results of the 1991 season, made me feel that perhaps I was coming to the end of the line.

Productivity wasn’t as high as it had been. Costs were higher. Politics, to me, was rampant. And it wasn’t any fun.

But then I made some changes at the end of 1991 that allowed Junior Johnson & Associates to have a key role in what has gone down as one of the greatest, and most remarkable, seasons in NASCAR history.

Junior Johnson’s commentaries will return in 2013.

 

 

 

 

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