How ‘Huck Finn’ Became ‘Awesome Bill From Dawsonville’

One of several accomplishments that got Bill Elliott inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was his Winston Cup championship in 1988.

One of several accomplishments that got Bill Elliott inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was his Winston Cup championship in 1988.

When the media first saw Bill Elliott in 1976 it was all they could do not to laugh.

Oh, they had seen kid race drivers before and they certainly had seen one-car, family-owned teams that didn’t have the equipment or personnel to hang around NASCAR any longer than a few races.

But what was different was Elliott himself. He was a Georgia boy from Dawsonville who was the perfect example of a hayseed – the term used by many cynical media members.

He was thin with a full head of curly red hair. When he spoke the Georgia accent oozed. It was easy to picture him on a riverbank, cane pole in hand and a stalk of straw hanging out of his mouth.

All he was missing was a face full of freckles.

Almost immediately the media gave him a new name: “Huck Finn.”

He might have been on a basement-tier team owned by his father George, but ol’ “Huck” was a persistent cuss.

With the help of brother Ernie, the engine builder, and Dan, youngest of the clan, Elliott kept racing, year after year.

He never competed on the full schedule – most of the time he entered no more than 13 races a year – but he never left. Five years after his debut, “Huck” was still racing.

Then things began to change.

Elliott astonished the racing world when he won 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million bonus in 1985.

Elliott astonished the racing world when he won 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million bonus in 1985.

In 1982 George Elliott sold the family team to Harry Melling, an industrialist from Michigan who was virtually unknown in NASCAR.

In 21 races that season Elliott compiled eight top-five finishes and won his first career pole position at Michigan.

The media wasn’t overly impressed. They still called him “Huck Finn.”

In 1983, jaws dropped and eyebrows rose during Elliott’s first year on the full schedule. “Huck” won one race, finished 12 times among the top five and ran up 22 finishes among the top 10. He finished third in points.

After Elliott won the last race of the year at Riverside, Bobby Allison was prompted to say, “Ol’ ‘Huck’ did good, didn’t he?”

He would do better. In 1984, Elliott won three races, finished among the top five 13 times and 24 times among the top 10. He again finished third in points.

Now he was considered a rising star. But the name “Huck” didn’t go away.

It all changed in 1985. Elliott had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. He set and broke records. He turned the world of auto racing on its ear.

Elliott won 11 superspeedway races and 11 pole positions – a feat since unequaled.

The season was the first for the Winston Million, a program designed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., sponsor of the Winston Cup Series.

Any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500 – would receive a $1million bonus from RJR.

Of course, Elliott won it with victories at Daytona, Talladega and Darlington.

During all of this the media quit poking fun at Elliott. Instead they sought to find the reasons why his Ford was so much faster than any other car on the track.

Conspiracy theories were published. Some said Ernie had found a few tricks even the best engine builders did not know. The team had a special fuel additive.

One major stock car magazine announced in bold headlines that it had found the Elliott secret. Well, no. Even Ernie, normally a taciturn fellow, shook his head and laughed when he read the article.

The media besieged Elliott. A normally shy, quiet guy, this made him uncomfortable. He tried to answer the burning question of his newly found speed, saying repeatedly that he and Ernie had found “the combination” that worked for his car and engine.

The media moniker “Huck Finn” disappeared. It was washed away by waves of fan admiration. They gave him the name “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville.”

His popularity increased after he won the Winston Cup championship in 1988.

Fact is it never wavered.

Elliott won the Most Popular Driver Award in every year except three from 1984-2002. His fans were intensely loyal.

However, Elliott had to travel to New York each year to receive his award.

Elliott was decidedly not a New York-type of guy. More than once he was seen ducking into his hotel room with bags of groceries, done for the night.

Now 59 years old and retired from racing since 2012, Elliott will receive another, deserved honor.

He will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 30.

Certainly he could not have imagined this when he started racing as a red-haired country boy all those years ago.

Attaboy, “Huck.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: 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 SAYS: At Charlotte, Darrell Won At Last And ‘Awesome Bill’ Wasn’t So Awesome

Darrell Waltrip finally broke through a losing streak in 1985 with Junior when, at Charlotte, he not only won The Winston, but also the Coca-Cola World 600.

Darrell Waltrip won the first running of The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1985, to get his first victory of any kind that season.

Until NASCAR’s version of an “all star” race, the only driver in the Junior Johnson & Associates stable to win a race was Neil Bonnett, who won twice in the year’s first 10 races at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.

 Junior felt – knew – it was time for Waltrip and his team to pick up the pace if they wanted to earn a third Winston Cup championship.

But even that might not get the job done. Young Bill Elliott was on a tear. He won five superspeedway races through the early portion of the season and stood in first place in the point standings.

He was also poised to win a $1 million bonus. If he could win the Coca-Cola World 600, the final and most important event of race week at Charlotte, the money was his.

For Junior the perfect scenario at Charlotte would be for Waltrip to win the race and, in so doing, take the measure of Elliott.

It wouldn’t be easy – if at all possible.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com

 will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

I don’t care how controversial the finish was – the engine in Darrell’s Chevrolet blew just after he crossed the finish line – winning the inaugural The Winston was a real tonic for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Darrell finally won a race in 1985 and while it wasn’t a points-paying event, it removed any doubts that he could get the job done and the team could prepare a winning car for him.

I reckon the only concern I had was if we could provide a car that would let Darrell win a 500-mile race instead of one that lasted just 105 miles.

It turns out we couldn’t – seems we gave him a car that won a 600-mile race.

When Waltrip swept Charlotte in his Budweiser Chevrolet, he not only provided momentum for Junior's team, he also stalled, briefly, Bill Elliott's dominance.

That race was the Coca-Cola World 600, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, the day after The Winston.

The atmosphere for that race was unlike any other I had experienced. It seems the media, fans – heck, everybody – had a very strong interest in the outcome.

That’s because Bill Elliott came to CMS with the chance to win The Winston Million, which was a program that awarded $1 million to any driver who could win three of four selected races.

Bill had already won five superspeedway races coming into Charlotte and among them were the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500.

If he won at Charlotte he’d pocket that $1 million before the season was half over.

So all eyes were on Bill. I felt some sympathy for the guy. He told everyone he dreaded coming to Charlotte and I could see why.

He didn’t get a minute’s peace. He was hounded by the media and his fans almost everywhere he went – pits, garage area, you name it. I don’t think he had much private time at all.

Now, while I felt a little bit sorry for him, I wasn’t all that sorry. After all, the guy was No. 1 in points. He was the driver we had to beat to win another championship and, through the first 10 races of the season, we hadn’t come close to doing it. No one else had either, for that matter.

I thought that all the distractions he endured at Charlotte might just take away from his race preparation. Of course, I wasn’t sure. But I was sure that if Darrell was in the same position, well, it wouldn’t be a good thing.

Danged if Bill didn’t win the pole. So much for distractions.

I had never seen as many fans attend a Charlotte race as I did when the 600 began. I don’t think there was an empty seat in the place and the infield was full. I was told later there were 155,000 or more in attendance.

Bill sure had strong drawing power, I’ll say that.

But those that came to see Bill win $1 million were disappointed, and in very short order.

He did lead the first 13 laps but he quickly fell off the pace – which was something no one had seen so far in 1985.

Bill had to drop out of the race with brake failure. And by the time his team made repairs and got him back on the track he was 21 laps down.

He wasn’t going to earn a million bucks that day.

Meanwhile, Darrell raced to the front and was quickly in contention for the victory.

Harry Gant – it seemed that guy was always up front – led laps 328-390 of the race’s 400 laps and then pitted for fuel. That gave Darrell the lead.

Then, after Darrell’s stop for gas, his wife Stevie, who was in our pits figuring gas mileage, got real concerned. She said she didn’t think Darrell had enough fuel to finish the race. He was going to be three or four laps short.

Here we go again, I thought. Once more we may lose a race we should win.

I decided to let Darrell remain on the track. If he was gonna run out of gas, durn it, it would be while going for the win.

I thought he could make it. Well, let’s say I hoped he could make it.

He did, barely. He beat Harry and then ran out of gas on the cool-down lap. That’s cutting it close.

The victory was a real relief for Darrell and me. It was our first points-paying victory of the season. It ended an early-season slump and gave us some real momentum for the remainder of the year.

By sweeping the weekend at Charlotte, we earned nearly $500,000. It ain’t a million bucks, but it’s big-time money. I didn’t mind that a bit.

Like I said, the 600 victory was a big boost for us.

But then, while he might not have been able to do much at Charlotte, I had the strong feeling we hadn’t seen the last of Bill Elliott.

 

JUNIOR SAYS: The Winston Of 1985 Proved A Much-Needed Tonic For Waltrip And Team

While Darrell Waltrip had already won several races and two championships with Junior, he got off to a slow start in 1985. He was winless one-third of the way into the season while teammate Neil Bonnett won twice.

The 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup season was going well enough for Junior Johnson & Associates.

By the 10th race of the season it had already won twice. But, oddly enough, Neil Bonnett, who became the team’s second driver a year earlier, earned both victories.

Darrell Waltrip, who had already won many races and two championships with Junior, was winless.

It was a situation that caused Junior some concern.

He had no doubt Waltrip would win but there was a major obstacle that hadn’t been present in previous seasons.

Bill Elliott was thrashing the competition. The young Georgia driver was dominant on the superspeedways, so much so that every Winston Cup team knew that to win a major event meant taking the measure of Elliott, something that was seemingly impossible to do through the first third of the 1985 season.

It was indeed small, but at Charlotte in May,Waltrip and Junior took one step toward doing just that.

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

After 10 races in 1985 – one-third of the season – I had some mixed feelings about my two-car team.

Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t doubt the fact that two operations would work. I knew that was entirely possible if for no other reason than Junior Johnson & Associates had done very well in 1984.

It’s just that I was very pleased with one team and a little concerned about the other.

Neil didn’t win with me in 1984 but he quickly made up for that with two victories in 10 races in 1985. I had no worries about his team because it was clear progress was being made.

On the other hand, Darrell had not won a single race through a third of the season. He won seven races a year earlier so I had reason to be a bit puzzled.

Also, Darrell and I had enjoyed so much success in the past I think it was just logical that I was a little concerned about what was going on, so far, in 1985.

Speaking of being concerned, every team in NASCAR, including mine, was concerned about Bill Elliott.

He was wearing us all out. By May he had already won seven races – all on superspeedways.

Additionally, he had already won two of four selected races that made up the inaugural Winston Million program.

If any driver won three of those races, which were the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington, he would collect a $1 million bonus.

Bill had already won at Daytona and Talladega. The 10th race of the season was at Charlotte. The bonus money was all but in his hands.

The Coca-Cola 600 was scheduled for May 26. The Winston, the new “all star” event open to 1984 race winners only, was set for a day earlier, also at Charlotte.

It was going to be a very special weekend for NASCAR.

And, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also going to be very special for Junior Johnson & Associates.

Darrell’s team was one of only 12 that could enter

The Winston. It was a 70-lap race that paid $200,000 to the winner.

I made special plans to assure that Darrell was that winner.

And he was.

Although at first it didn’t appear that was going to be the case. With 10 laps to go, Darrell trailed leader Harry Gant by 3.1 seconds.

Bill Elliott was easily the hottest driver of 1985. He won seven times in the first 10 races of the year and was well on his way toward winning a bonus of $1 million in the new Winston Million program.

I got on the radio and said to Darrell, “Boy, do you want that $200,000 or $75,000 for second place?”

I thought that would fire him up and sure enough, Darrell made up the distance and got past Harry in the fourth turn just as the white flag flew. Darrell won by less than a second.

He had barely crossed the finish line when the engine blew. I thought to myself, “Man, we got lucky.”

Here’s why:

Those “special plans” I told you about were basically this: I had told my engine guys to construct a motor that would last a little over 100 miles. It was supposed to be built for horsepower and not endurance.

That’s exactly what my guys did – and they did it almost to the very foot. No question we were extremely lucky because failure could have happened one, two or more laps earlier.

Of course the timing of that failure made the other teams upset. They claimed I had ordered Darrell to mash the clutch and kill what they thought was an illegal engine as soon as he took the checkered flag.

Johnny Hayes, Harry’s team owner, complained loudest, saying I was up to my usual tricks. There was plenty more grousing, too.

OK, I agree it looked suspicious.

But Harry said he had smelled something when Darrell passed him and he thought it was his own engine getting ready to blow.

And, although Darrell’s engine was destroyed, there was enough of it left for NASCAR to inspect, which it did.

NASCAR checked out the bore and stroke and said that the engine was legal.

Case closed, as far as I was concerned.

The Winston eased a lot of my concerns. It might not have been a points race but at least Darrell won – at last – and we made a lot of money.

Oh, and we beat the guy now known as “Awesome Bill.” He finished in seventh place.

So I knew Darrell’s team could get the job done.

The only way to strengthen my belief was to win a points-paying race and, as a bonus, beat red-hot Bill in so doing.

I would never have imagined it at the time, but that would happen just one day after The Winston.

One Race In 1984 Turned The Tide For A Speedway And A Driver

Earnhardt

By the time Dale Earnhardt raced at Talladega in July of 1984 for Richard Childress, he was looking to change his sagging fortunes. That happened in the race and it also altered those of what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway, now Talladega Superspeedway.

It took just one race in 1984 for two significant things to happen:

A major speedway’s soiled reputation was eradicated and replaced with the acknowledgement that it was the fastest and most competitive in NASCAR.

And a driver who burst onto the scene with almost instant success, and had quickly become a sensation, brought his career out of the doldrums.

When it opened in 1969, what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, Ala., was intended to be the fastest in the world. That wasn’t hard to comprehend given that it was a 2.66-mile, high-banked monster.

Indeed, it was fast; very fast. By 1982, a driver was able to qualify at an astounding 200 mph. That driver was Benny Parsons.

Just a couple of years later many drivers routinely broke the 200 mph barrier. In 1987, Bill Elliott set what remains the speedway’s qualifying record with a lap of 212.809 mph – which never again be approached, by the way, in this era of restrictor plates.

But as potentially exciting as high speeds were, the track never came forward as a NASCAR competitive showplace.

It was plagued with controversy. It erupted quickly at the first race, scheduled for Sept. 14, 1969.

During practices, as tire after tire shredded under the strain of unusually high speeds, drivers became concerned about safety and confronted the track’s owner, Bill France Sr., who obviously disagreed.

Emotions boiled and eventually spilled over. NASCAR’s Grand National competitors boycotted the race. France, determined to stage the speedway’s debut, pulled in a field of drivers from NASCAR’s minor circuits and the event was held.

The speedway never again endured such a situation but that didn’t matter. As the years passed it was besieged by all manner of misfortune.

There were frightening multicar accidents, some of which ended drivers’ careers. There were on-track fatalities and even worse, there were others under condition so unusual – even eerie – that stories about a “Talladega curse” became prominent.

There were many other controversies that involved such situations as cheating and sabotage. It reached the point where some cynical media members, and fans, called Talladega a “white elephant.”

This in spite of the fact there was nearly always speed and excitement on the track. For many, races in Alabama became some of the most anticipated every year.

However, it still had a reputation as a place immersed in controversy, mayhem and misfortune.

In 1979 Dale Earnhardt entered the Winston Cup ranks. He won a race at Bristol and became the circuit’s rookie of the year.

A year later he won five races and the Winston Cup championship. He became the first, and only, driver to win both the rookie and series titles in successive years.

He was a blazing star in NASCAR’s firmament. But in 1981 his career swooned.

Discontent with J.D. Stacy, who had purchased the Rod Osterlund team with which he had won his titles, Earnhardt quit late in the year to drive for former independent competitor Richard Childress.

Earnhardt did not win a race in 1981.

In 1982, he moved over to Bud Moore’s Ford operation. He stayed there for two years, during which he won three races, but was never a title contender and never recaptured the form he had displayed in his dazzling debut.

In 1984 Earnhardt returned to the Childress organization. It was the culmination of an earlier arrangement. Childress had told Earnhardt that if the day ever came when he felt he could field competitive cars that could win races, he would like to have Earnhardt return. Earnhardt agreed.

Besides, Earnhardt never liked racing Fords. He was a General Motors man. Childress ran Chevrolets.

Many observers felt that a Childress-Earnhardt combination wouldn’t work. Childress was a relatively new team owner who didn’t have the experience and resources of the top operations – never mind that he had already won two races with driver Ricky Rudd.

On July 29, 1984, the second race of the season at the “white elephant” was run. Among the entries was the driver who hoped to revive his slumping career with a fledgling team owner.

That race, then known as the Talladega 500, was to be the turning point for both speedway and competitor.

With 68 lead changes among 16 drivers it was highly competitive. Well beyond that, it had a finish that featured 10 cars racing like a batch of angry hornets At 200 mph toward the checkered flag.

This was unmatched in NASCAR’s history.

Earnhardt was involved and broke away from the swarm on the last lap to pass leader Terry Labonte and sprint to a 1.66-second victory.

At the finish he glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a glut of cars racing side-by-side for position. It was then he knew he had won for the first time with Childress.

But behind him the finishing order was difficult to determine. Cars had been racing so closely together, and separated by just inches, that NASCAR had to consult at least three photographs from the photo finish to figure who wound up where.

Buddy Baker was second, followed by Labonte. Then came Bobby Allison in fourth by a fender over Cale Yarborough.

Rounding out the top 10 were Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Lake Speed, Tommy Ellis and Bill Elliott.

The hair-raising, white-knuckle finish prompted many to call the 1984 Talladega race “the greatest in NASCAR’s history.”

That will always be debatable but what is not is that from that year on, Talladega was seldom, if ever, viewed as a “white elephant.”

It had clearly shown that it could indeed provide that for which it was built – speed, competition and excitement.

Earnhardt won another race with Childress in ’84 and finished fourth in the final point standings after leading for several portions of the season. It was his best run since 1980, his title year.

It was obvious he had returned to championship form. That he could succeed with Childress was no longer questioned.

The only real question was, just how successful would Earnhardt become with Childress?

At the time no one could imagine how great it would be.

Current Situation Aside, Elliott’s Glory Remains Intact

Bill Elliott admits he’s not sure when, or if, he’ll race again. He said he’s just on the sidelines. He’s taking it one day at a time.

The situation seems decidedly inglorious for a driver who ranks as one of the greatest in NASCAR and who is one of the most popular competitors in any form of motorsports.

But, perhaps, we could have seen it coming. Elliott has been a part-time driver since 2004, his last full season with Ray Evernham.

The teams with which he’s raced have been, for the most part, second tier.

He did spend four seasons with Wood Brothers Racing, which has a glorious past. But the team has competed on a limited schedule due to a lack of funds – and thus has been largely uncompetitive and ignored. With Elliott, it had a past champion and, at the least, was assured of provisional starts.

Elliott’s association with the Woods came to a conclusion at the end of last season. Ironically, his replacement, Trevor Bayne, won the 2011 Daytona 500 and restored some glory to the Woods with his surprising and hugely popular victory.

Elliott, meanwhile, started the season with Phoenix Racing and was scheduled to run 17 races. But he was released from the team last month.

At Talladega Elliott used his provisional start to get the Whitney Motorsports car in the race and later turned the wheel over to J.J. Yeley.

One published report said that Elliott didn’t want to run the entire race and, before it started, made a deal with Yeley to finish up.

At the least, that’s a very curious situation.

To many, it’s also curious how Elliott could have let his career deteriorate to the point where he’s standing on the side of the road with his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride.

All he’s done, it’s said, is tarnish his established image by hooking up with uncompetitive rides. He hasn’t done anything more than hang around into his 50s.

I don’t share those opinions.

I’ve known Elliott since he broke into NASCAR in 1976, when we dubbed him “Huck Finn.” I’ve had several conversations with him over the years. But I haven’t talked with him about his most recent competitive status, so I don’t know the reasons for it or why he has seemingly accepted it.

But I can take a guess.

I surmise that, perhaps, it all has something to do with Elliott’s 15-year-old son Chase, a racing prodigy.

Maybe Elliott wanted to race on a limited schedule in order to spend more time helping his son’s competitive development.

As I recall, Mark Martin did something similar a few years back when his son Matt became involved in racing.

Elliott’s options, when it came to high-quality teams, were limited. Most are not interested in anything part-time.

But with his past champion’s provisional, Elliott was assured a starting position in every race he ran – and that meant additional income, which certainly couldn’t hurt when it came to Chase’s fledgling career.

Chase, incidentally, has been signed to a developmental driver contract with Hendrick Motorsports. So perhaps his dad may now think there’s not much need to race at all.

But, as I said, I don’t know. I’m only guessing.

What I do know is that it matters little what has happened in recent years. The glow on Elliott’s career remains intact – and that’s certainly no guess.

It won’t be forgotten that he won 44 races, including 11 superspeedway events in 1985, the same year he won the inaugural Winston Million bonus.

He won the Daytona 500 two times. He won the Brickyard 400 in 2002. He holds Talladega’s qualifying record of 212.809 mph, the fastest lap in NASCAR history. He was the 1988 Winston Cup champion.

And he was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 16 times.

Elliott has long since established his standing in NASCAR. What he’s done over the last few years and how it’s been perceived won’t change that now or ever.

Frankly, knowing Elliott, I don’t believe he’s given any of this a second thought – if he thought about it at all.

 

In 1985, Elliott Added His Own Touch To Talladega’s Colorful History

Talladega Superspeedway has a long and colorful history, littered with some of the most controversial, exciting and downright unusual races in NASCAR’s existence.

Which shouldn’t be considered unordinary. Given its 2.66-mile distance and high banking, which produce incredible speeds, and the tight racing created by the high-speed draft, anything can happen at Talladega. To be frank, it has.

Some of it – such as the high number of excruciatingly close finishes – has been positive. Some of it – such as massive accidents, cars flying into catchfences, over the wall, or worse, – has been negative.

But, good or bad, it’s all part of Talladega history, which makes it part of NASCAR lore.

I did say downright unusual races, didn’t I? Oh, Talladega has had plenty of those; races in which there arose circumstances not seen anywhere else and could hardly be believed.

One of them happened on May 5, 1985.

In the Winston 500 of that year, Bill Elliott did something that hadn’t been done at Talladega before nor has been achieved since.

He made up two lost laps without the benefit of a caution period. In other words, he lost over five miles to the rest of the field, recovered the distance by simply running it down lap after lap and then, remarkably, won the race.

It was an achievement so astonishing that, to this day, many do not believe it happened. They contend NASCAR fouled up somewhere – maybe in scoring or something like that. What Elliott did was impossible.

Me? I only know what I saw.

The 1985 season was the one that propelled Elliott into superstardom. He would win 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million bonus that year.

By the time the season’s first event at Talladega rolled around, Elliott had already won three big-track races, at Daytona, Atlanta and Darlington. He was the favorite to win the Winston 500.

He won the pole with a blistering speed of 209.398 mph utilizing an engine unfettered by a restrictor plate.

But after just 48 laps Elliott’s Melling Racing Ford started smoking badly. He began to lose power. He pitted and brother Ernie diagnosed and repaired a loose oil fitting.

It was a minor problem but it cost Elliott major distance. He returned to the race in 26th place. He was 2.03 seconds from being a full two laps down. To most observers, he’d lose that second lap quickly.

The race continued under green lap after lap – which was something unusual for Talladega, where wrecks, at times big ones, are common.

As each green-flag lap passed, Elliott faded from media consciousness – and for good reason. Without a caution period there was no way he stood a chance. No way would he regain his lost distance.

But one thing was forgotten. As long as the race continued under green-flag conditions one conclusion was simple: The fastest car, be that through horsepower, setup or a combination of both, would eventually lead.

Nine drivers did, indeed, lead after Elliott pitted. But his Ford was clocked consistently at a speed of 205 mph, faster than the others.

In time, somebody in the press box said aloud, “I think Bill just made up one lap. Ain’t too sure, but he might be on the lead lap now, a long way back.”

I yawned. So what, I thought. Elliott still needed a caution flag. If he got one, then he would be up front on the restart, on the tail end of the lead lap. He’d have a chance then.

But as time passed, the media began to notice Elliott. He was passing everyone, moving steadily through the field. His Ford clearly had dominant horsepower.

On lap 145, just 39 laps from the end of the race, Elliott passed Cale Yarborough to take the lead. The race had yet to experience its first caution period.

Fans were awestruck.

Those of us in the press box began to debate how Elliott could possibly have done what he did. There was only one answer: He ran everyone down because of the raw power his Ford possessed.

Elliott won the race by 1.72 seconds over Kyle Petty, then driving for the Wood Brothers.

When Elliott came to the press box, naturally he was inundated with questions, nearly off which asked him how he could make up a lost five miles in a race that had only two caution periods for eight laps.

“It’s a real credit to Ernie and all the guys in the crew,” said Elliott, who clearly followed the party line.

Elliott’s performance at Talladega only fueled the argument that he, and brother Ernie, had concocted a means by which their Ford’s engines were so much more powerful than others that they had created a great, and unfair, advantage.

Talladega would certainly not be the last race in which Elliott’s competitive superiority would be called into question.

But it would be, however it was done, the only Talladega race – or any other in NASCAR, for that matter – in which a driver made up so much lost distance solely on his own.

 

Points? Racing To Win Is How It’s Done

Junior Johnson 1985Junior 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.

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