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.

Recalling The Late Davey Allison, Who Would Turn 51 Today

Vastly popular Davey Allison was well on his way to NASCAR greatness. The son of superstar Bobby Allison won races and many honors before his untimely death, which stunned his many fans.

Amid the pageantry, celebration and spectacle that is the Daytona 500, an anniversary of the birth of one of NASCAR’s fallen heroes is upon us.

Davey Allison would have turned 51 today, Saturday, Feb. 25th.

For those of you who don’t remember this son of racing legend Bobby Allison, he was the real deal in NASCAR.

Although he never won a championship, Davey Allison was in the middle of a very promising and successful career in NASCAR’s top level of competition when he was killed in a helicopter crash in Talladega.

Along with his famous racing father Bobby, uncle Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Red Farmer, Davey Allison was a famed member of the “Alabama Gang.”

Allison began his Cup career in 1987 and won Rookie of the Year honors. He was the only first-year driver ever to win two Winston Cup races.

At the start of the 1988 season the younger Allison finished second to his father’s victory at the “Great American Race.” This was the first father-son, one-two finish in the Daytona 500.

Life changed irreversibly in June of 1988 when Bobby was involved in a career-ending accident that propelled Davey, the oldest of four children, into the role of decision-making man of the family.

In October 1988 Robert Yates bought the #28 team from Harry Ranier and made Davey his driver.

Despite the stress of competition and family responsibility, Davey went on to win his third and fourth Winston Cup races and ended up eighth in points in his landing eighth in points in his second season.

His four-year marriage quietly ended by the end of the 1988 season.

The next year was fabulous personally and professionally.  Davey earned his fifth and sixth wins in Cup, including a Talladega victory that was his second at the track, and finished 11th in points. He also claimed his second wife, Liz, and welcomed his first child, Krista Marie.

Davey racked up a couple more wins in 1990 bringing his total to eight. He finished 13th in points.

When Larry McReynolds took over as crew chief in 1991, the team really gelled. That season Davey had five wins, 12 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes and three pole positions.

Finishing third for the year, Davey told champion Dale Earnhardt at the Winston Cup Awards Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City that the next year, “I’ll be sitting at the head table!”

Davey and Liz welcomed their second child, Robert Grey, in that same year.

It was with team owner Robert Yates (right) that young Allison enjoyed his greatest successes and among them were many victories, including the Daytona 500 and The Winston.

Adding his name to the NASCAR history books once again, Davey won the 1992 Daytona 500. This feat was the second time a father and son had each won at the historic track.

Injuries and tragedies plagued Davey in 1992. He lost his paternal grandfather and, later in the year, his younger brother Clifford, who was involved in a horrific accident in Brooklyn during a Busch Series practice session at Michigan International Speedway.

Despite these trying events, Davey’s pressed on and came out of the late-season Phoenix race with a win and the points lead. He was primed to win the championship. If he finished fifth in the year’s last race, at Atlanta, the title was his.

But fate intervened.

Ernie Irvan lost control of his car and spun in front of Davey with less than 100 laps to go. It ended Davey’s chances at winning the championship.

Alan Kulwicki would earn the title after he finished second to Bill Elliott. In the final standings, Kulwicki was No. 1 by just 10 points over Elliott, then the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Davey, very disappointed, finished third.

He experienced a frustrating start to the 1993 season when he finished a dismal 28th in the Daytona 500. He was 16th the following week at Rockingham.

A win in Richmond would turn out to be the last of young Allison’s life. The first half of the 1993 season was decent. He was fifth in points and determined to claw his way back into championship contention in the second half of the season.

But that was not to be.

Davey, a novice helicopter pilot, wanted to support his fellow “Alabama Gang” friend Neil Bonnett and his son David as David tested a car for his Busch Series debut at Talladega on July 12, 1993.

So he flew his helicopter to the track.

Allison, who had also picked up Farmer, tried to land his helicopter in the track’s infield but crashed instead.

Bonnett heroically rescued a semi-conscious Farmer from the wreckage but was unable to reach Davey. Rescue workers arrived on the scene, freed Allison, and rushed him to the hospital with serious head injuries.

Davey was pronounced dead on July 13, 1993, the day after the accident, leaving a family and a NASCAR nation reeling.

In his stunted career young Allison posted 19 wins, 66 top-five and 92 top-10 finishes. He captured 14 poles and earned $6,724,174. His wife Liz and their children survived him.

His death also left a gaping hole in NASCAR.

On the cusp of superstardom and potentially a candidate to win several titles, Davey could well have cut into Earnhardt’s record-setting seven championships.

He could have carried on the dynasty created by his father and uncle.

The “Alabama Gang” is now mostly a memory with the loss of Clifford, Davey, and Bonnett.

I was not a Davey Allison fan, but I saw his talent firsthand. When he passed it hit me hard. I mourned not only for a great race car driver, but for a wife who had lost her husband, young children who had lost and would never know their father, a mother and father who would mourn the unnatural and punishing reality of laying to rest not one but two sons, and a NASCAR family that would never see true greatness reach its full potential.

I often think about Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, Adam Petty, and Dale Earnhardt palling around together, exchanging war stories with the likes of “Big” Bill France, Red Byron, and Lee Petty.

NASCAR has given us many great heroes and stars and many have been taken far too early.

Davey was one of those stars that shined fiercely for a short while.

Happy Birthday, Davey Allison. Thanks for the great ride for all of those years.

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Richmond Is Old But It Has Been “New” For Years

What was once known as Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway became a part of NASCAR in 1953. That makes it the third-oldest track in the sanctioning body’s history, behind Martinsville and Darlington.

At that time, Darlington was a one-mile paved track created by Harold Brasington, a man who envisioned for South Carolina something close to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Darlington was never close to Indy, but it was unique, and remains so to this day.

Martinsville and Richmond started out as half-mile dirt tracks.

In time both converted to asphalt. Richmond did so in the fall of 1968, many years after Martinsville, which was paved in the autumn of 1955.

For many years, when it came to growth, modernization and additional amenities, Darlington and Richmond lagged behind Martinsville – which was always somewhat more progressive under the guidance of its headstrong owner, the late H. Clay Earles.

But, in time, Richmond metamorphosed into something few could have expected, and on a scale that few could have imagined.

One who did was Paul Sawyer.

As I grew to know him, I learned that the late Sawyer, the man who directed Richmond’s fortunes, was always forceful and passionate about his track.

He once threatened to whip my butt after I wrote that his speedway, with steel guardrails instead of concrete walls, was little more than a death trap.

But Sawyer was smart enough to know that his track, and as humble as it was, could not survive without changes.

Many of us wondered what he could do. We assumed – again, assumed – he was still supervised by the authorities of the Virginia State Fairgounds.

Perhaps it was the force of Sawyer’s will. Maybe it was Virginia’s recognition that a major, redesigned track on fairgrounds property would be far more lucrative than a bull ring.

It doesn’t really matter. In the fall of 1988, Richmond was dramatically altered. Instead of a 0.542-track, it became a 0.75-mile facility.

Seats and VIP boxes were added. The garage area, press box and media center expanded. Tunnels allowed vehicles and people to pass unimpeded.

In 1991, the second Richmond race of the season was the first held under new lights and was won by Harry Gant.

Eight years later both of Richmond’s two events were held at night, as they are to this day.

What makes all of this significant is this: While many tracks have grown and altered themselves over the years, Richmond went at least one step further.

It not only added amenities, but it also changed the length and shape of its racing surface.

Today, it’s the only 0.75-mile track on the NASCAR Cup circuit. It is unique.

And it has all paid off. Richmond races are popular among fans and competitors alike, simply because the style of racing combines short-track action with a sizable amount of big-track speed.

Competitors will tell you there’s room to race, room to pass.

Here’s a piece of Richmond – and NASCAR – lore.

The first race at the “new” Richmond track, now 0.75-mile, was held on Sept. 11, 1988. That was the year of the “tire wars” between Goodyear and Hoosier.

After qualifying for the Cup race, crewmen turned out in force to see what would happen in the Saturday 200-mile Nationwide Series race – and for a good reason.

Every car in that event was shod with Hoosier tires. The Cup teams wanted to know how they would hold up.

The answer was: not much. Tire wear was so obvious that Cup guys dashed into the garage area and wheezed, “We gotta run Goodyears!”

Which the teams did. However, those that changed after qualifying on Hoosiers had to drop to the rear of the field, per NASCAR rules, before the Miller High Life 400 began.

It looked like a massive exodus from front to back.

To give you an idea of the enormity of the transition, Alan Kulwicki, who qualified second, started the race in the 31st position. He was part of what looked like a retreating army.

Davey Allison, then driving for Harry Ranier, was cagey. He started the first six laps on Hoosiers, built up a sizable lead and then pitted for Goodyears.

He led most of the laps and won the race by 3.37 seconds over Dale Earnhardt.

That race was, at the least, a most interesting debut for the new Richmond.

Much has happened since, of course.

We can expect more from a track that has altered itself, perhaps, more than any other – and for so much the better.

 

For Earnhardt Jr. The Season Is Yet Another Opportunity

If I was Dale Earnhardt Jr., I would have long since been very tired of NASCAR observers, fans, pontificators and pundits – like me – commenting on his professional and personal life.

Over the past few years Earnhardt Jr. has probably heard or read everything out there. He may have long since quit doing so, I don’t know, but it’s likely he’s done enough to learn, in abundance, what everyone has to say.

You know, stuff like the fact that he’s mired in a 93-race losing slump, or that he hasn’t been able to succeed with a dream team like Hendrick Motorsports, which indicates he’s no more than a mediocre driver despite promising performances in his early Sprint Cup seasons.

Or that his heart really isn’t into competition because he’s content to be a “name” driver who has, financially and otherwise, anything he wants in life.

Then there’s talk that Earnhardt Jr. succeeded only under the guidance of his father – and while driving for the team bearing the name Dale Earnhardt. The son hasn’t been much of anything without the presence of his dad.

I haven’t had the opportunity to visit with Earnhardt Jr. in quite some time. So suffice it to say I haven’t spoken to him personally and don’t know what he thinks of any of the above.

What I know is only what he has revealed to the media through various press conferences, including the one given during the Sprint Cup Media Tour.

I have a very hard time believing Earnhardt Jr. does not have the desire to race, to win again and eventually establish what ultimately will become a stellar career.

I think he has borne burdens not shared by any of his fellow competitors – and those burdens, accompanied by unsuccessful changes, have made things much harder for him.

He is the son of Dale Earnhardt. The name is burden enough. So it has been in the past for Kyle Petty, Davey Allison, Dale Jarrett and others. Believe that and also believe the second generation or third generation, while highly successful in its own right, rarely eclipsed the first.

Initially, it appeared that would not be the case with Earnhardt Jr. He won two Nationwide Series championships and 17 of his 18 victories while driving for his father’s team. He quickly rose to stardom and, so it seemed, had been properly groomed to assume the family mantle.

But his father perished at Daytona in 2001. For the son it had to be emotionally devastating. How could it not be?
To have a father die in a race in which his son also drove has to be one of the most crushing blows ever delivered to a young man.

When Earnhardt Jr. told us, that because of what happened, he thought about giving up his racing career that was certainly understandable.

It might have been a blow to his career, but ultimately, he withstood it nicely.

Afterward, even though he won races with the team called Dale Earnhardt Inc., there came a time when he obviously thought he could do better elsewhere.

Or, perhaps, he thought that the operation and direction of the team could be better handled under his guidance. Either way by 2007 he made it clear he wanted majority control. He thought it best if he held superior ownership over his stepmother Teresa.

That was not about to happen. So, for the 2008 season, Earnhardt Jr. signed a pact with Hendrick to be its driver. It seemed a matchup decreed by the gods. NASCAR’s most popular driver would race for, arguably, its best team.

Earnhardt Jr. said at the time that with Hendrick he had his best opportunity to win races and championships.

As you know, that has not been the case. Earnhardt Jr. has won once in his three years with Hendrick and has never made the Chase. In 2010, he was again winless, finished among the top five only three times and eight among the top 10. He wound up a distant 21st in points.

But he was named NASCAR’s most popular driver for the eighth consecutive year. I think that tells you how much the father’s name and
legacy have been attached to his son.

I would think that’s another distraction for him. He said otherwise – about that and anything else.

“I’ve owned up to my issues and performance in the past,” said Earnhardt Jr. who now has a new crew chief in Steve Letarte. “I wouldn’t put up with the things I have if I didn’t think I wanted to go win races and be successful.

“We are making efforts to fix things and get better. I know we can do it.”
If he and his team don’t fix them this year, well, they will face an all-too-familiar situation the next.
If they do, perhaps the time will come when the pontificators and pundits – like me – will rightly praise them and then shut up.

And those who have voted Earnhardt Jr. the most popular driver in NASCAR for the past several years will, at last, feel justified beyond their own personal feelings. They will be rewarded by his accomplishments, as they should be.

We all know what Earnhardt Jr. must do this year.
He does, too.

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