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.
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.