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: 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: 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: In 1988, To Be Neutral In NASCAR’s ‘Tire Wars’ Was Right Thing

In 1988, Junior entered into his second year of NASCAR Winston Cup competition with Terry Labonte as his driver. No one knew it at the time, but the season was to be forever known as "Tire Wars."

By most standards, to have the kind of season Terry Labonte and Junior Johnson did in 1987 would have been considered excellent.

Labonte won a race with 20 finishes among the top 10. He was third in the final point standings.

But it was not the kind of season to which Johnson had become accustomed. Yet it was only the first year with Labonte as his driver and there was plenty of reason to believe things could get much better in 1988.

However, the season would be characterized by something that hadn’t been part of NASCAR for decades – a battle between two tire manufacturers for supremacy on the Winston Cup circuit.

This battle, which became known as the “Tire Wars,” had a profound effect on competition.

However, it didn’t have much effect on Junior Johnson & Associates. Johnson simply chose not to be a part of it.

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

After Terry won for us at North Wilkesboro in October, finally, I let myself hope we could win a few more times before the end of the 1987 season.

There were four races left in the campaign and I thought we had gained enough momentum to win at least one of them.

Well, we might have gained momentum, but it didn’t work. We didn’t win during the last four weeks of the season.

Not that Terry didn’t run well. He did. He finished fourth at Charlotte, fifth at Rockingham and eighth at Riverside. He was 28th at Atlanta, but only because a flywheel broke on our Chevrolet.

For 1987, Terry and Junior Johnson & Associates won one race, finished among the top five 13 times and had 20 finishes among the top 10.

Terry wound up third in the final point standings behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

As nearly everyone predicted Dale ran away with the championship. He locked up the title at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season, where his runnerup finish gave him an insurmountable points lead over Bill.

Dale won 11 races in 29 starts. He had 24 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. That is a remarkable record.

But, really, for me as a team owner, it wasn’t anything new. In 1981-82, when Darrell drove for us and won consecutive titles, he had 24 wins and 45 top-10 finishes in 60 races. That sure ain’t bad.

Since 1987 was by no means a poor inaugural season with Terry, I had reason to think 1988 would be better.

Labonte seemed well on his way to another solid season with Junior. He won his first race, at North Wilkesboro, in only the seventh event of 1988.

But with the new year came a new twist for stock car racing. Hoosier Tires, a small outfit in the Midwest, announced it was going to enter NASCAR competition in 1988.

The significance of this was that Hoosier was going to be the first tire company to challenge Goodyear in decades – at least on a full-time basis.

Goodyear had been part of NASCAR ever since it began in 1948 and had become very adept at manufacturing tires that were durable, fast and safe.

But Hoosiers were cheaper and the company had plenty of racing experience. Its tires were used regularly on many Midwestern short-track circuits.

I admit I didn’t know entirely what the presence of two tire companies would do for NASCAR. But I had a strong suspicion.

And I didn’t want any part of any tire company other than Goodyear. It’s not that I thought Hoosier couldn’t win races. But I knew Goodyear’s performance and safety records were excellent.

Also, Goodyear was a giant company that had more than enough money to make all the changes it needed to overcome Hoosier.

Hoosier got the upper hand pretty quickly. Morgan Shepherd won the pole at Richmond, only the second race of the year, on Hoosiers. Neil Bonnett, driving for Rahmoc, won the race – also on Hoosiers.

And Neil won again the next week at Rockingham

The battle was on. In NASCAR lore, 1988 was the year of the “Tire Wars.”

At certain tracks teams would use Hoosiers.  Then they would switch to Goodyears for other races. Sometimes teams would switch from one brand to the other in the middle of an event. Can you imagine that?

Eventually it worked out that Hoosier had a softer, faster tire while Goodyear had a more durable, safer one.

It wasn’t long before Goodyear did what I thought it would do. It spent money to make its tire as fast as Hoosier’s while maintaining safety. And sure enough, Goodyear gained the competitive edge.

One major, unpleasant result of the “Tire Wars” was the high number of accidents in 1988. Hoosiers, or tires for that matter, didn’t cause all of them – just a heckuva lot of them. At least a dozen drivers were injured that season.

There was also plenty of torn up equipment, which forced some team owners to complain – they were spending huge dollars in repairs – and suggest NASCAR do something about it. They had become fed up with the tire situation.

But it didn’t take a genius to figure out there was nothing NASCAR could do. Hoosier played by the rules. And you can bet NASCAR didn’t want to deal with potential monopoly charges.

Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t involved in the “Tire Wars” very much. Like I said earlier, I had a pretty good idea of the outcome.

So where other teams had drivers who were injured and faced increased costs because of damaged cars, well, mine never had to deal with any of that.

Ironically, it was a rival’s tire problem that helped us win our first race of the season.

Dale was leading at North Wilkesboro in April by more than two seconds over Terry. But with about 20 laps to go, Dale began to slow down.

He had a cut right-rear tire that went flat.

Terry sped into the lead with 11 laps to go and went on to give us our first win – and in just the first seven races of the year.

In 1987 it took us 25 races to get our first victory. In 1988 it took us only seven.

I thought that was a very good sign.

Wasn’t it?

 

JUNIOR JOHNSON: In 1987 First Choice As Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Inexplicably Turned Down

When Junior Johnson's two-car operation came to an end after the 1986, it evolved that he hired Terry Labonte, the 1984 champion, as the driver for his single-car team in 1987.

After the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season, things underwent significant changes at Junior Johnson & Associates in Ronda, N.C.

Gone were the tandem drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnet – a union that lasted the three seasons Johnson committed to a two-car team.

Waltrip had been with Johnson since 1981. Together they won three championships and 43 races. From 1974-80, Cale Yarborough also won three championships and earned 44 victories driving for Johnson.

All three men are now members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But in 1987, Johnson was at a crossroads. He had to determine if he was going to continue to operate a two-car team or return to a single-car operation.

But what was even more important was for Johnson to find a new driver.

At the time there were more than a few accomplished drivers available.

But Johnson really didn’t consider most of them.

He knew exactly who he wanted.

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

The 1987 season was going to be a new start for Junior Johnson & Associates. You might say the slate was clean.

After Darrell and Neil departed I mulled over what I should do. I didn’t think it was possible to field two teams again because I was pretty certain Budweiser didn’t want to stretch its investment.

I decided to put the sponsorship money in one basket and field just one team. I thought that would increase our competitiveness and I knew it would help the budget.

I knew who I wanted to be my driver – Dale Earnhardt. Yep, that’s what I said.

I know this sounds very surprising, given I got very angry and upset with him because of his actions at Richmond in 1986, where wrecked Darrell and took him out of the race.

Despite that, I knew Earnhardt was the man.

Yes, he wrecked Darrell but that, to me, was the sign of his aggressiveness and willingness to win at all cost.

His run-in with Darrell certainly wasn’t the only one he had in 1986, but it did enhance his growing reputation as a driver who wasn’t going to be trifled with.

He reminded me of Cale. Both of them knew only one way to race – very hard and up front as much as possible.

Besides, Earnhardt won five races in ’86 and beat Darrell for the championship. It was his second career title and I thought he could win a lot more.

So why not let him grab of couple of championships in my cars?

The driver Junior wanted in 1987 was none other than Dale Earnhardt, who had his run-ins with Darrell Waltrip in 1986. However, Junior's sponsor, Budweiser, would not approve.

In the past Dale had indicated to me that he would like to be my driver some day. In 1987, he was scheduled to be Richard Childress’ driver for the third consecutive year.

They first joined forces for the last portion of the 1981 season, when Dale bolted from owner J.D. Stacy, and they reunited in 1984.

I had done a lot of favors for Richard over the years, both when he was driving and when he concentrated on being an owner.

I had helped bring him and Dale together in ’81 and also assisted in locating a sponsor.

So I didn’t feel bad about offering Dale my ride.

But I couldn’t.

For some reason – and I don’t know what it was to this day – Budweiser didn’t want Dale.

I was very, very surprised. He was an up-and-coming driver who had already won two championships and was likely to win more.

His presence on and off the track had to make the folks at Wrangler – his sponsor for six years – delighted.

But Budweiser was insistent. It wanted me to get someone else.

So after a while I got together with Terry Labonte.

Labonte was a winning driver. He was also the 1984 Winston Cup champion. He had raced since 1979 with team owner Billy Hagan but by 1987 that was coming to an end due to Hagan’s financial problems.

Terry might not have been my first choice but he was the man Budweiser wanted.

There were a lot of drivers I could have tapped at the time but Budweiser had been part of Terry’s career in the past and liked him and what he did for them as far as public relations was concerned.

When I hired Terry, I knew things were going to be different – and not necessarily only on the track.

Terry had a personality unlike Darrell’s and even Cale’s. I don’t have to tell you how outspoken and, let’s face it, “mouthy” Darrell could be.

Terry, well, his nickname was “The Iceman.” That was partly due to his cold, calculating style of racing – he reminded folks of David Pearson.

But he also got the name because he didn’t talk much. He was just a quiet guy who said something only when he felt he had something to say.

It was going to take a while for all of us at Junior Johnson & Associates to get used to him.

I liked his demeanor. He took his racing in stride. It didn’t matter what happened to him. He didn’t blame anyone for what happened to him. He took all the blame, even when I thought it wasn’t necessary.

For the most part he let others do the talking.

When the 1987 season began I was optimistic that we could do good things with Terry. He was a proven commodity and, if we could put good cars under him, there was no reason we couldn’t win.

But even with that, inside I felt like a man who let a record-setting fish get away.

If I had it to do over I would have put Terry in the Budweiser car and found the sponsorship to put Dale in a second car. I think me and Dale would have done very well together.

That, however, was not going to be the case.

Nevertheless, I still thought Dale was going to do very, very well in 1987.

Turns out it didn’t take long at all to learn I was right. Not long at all.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With The 1986 Season Came Winds Of Change

In 1986, Junior Johnson's teams struggled. It wasn't until June that Darrell Waltrip finally won a race and that made it much more difficult for him to challenge Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

The tone of the 1986 season was set, at least for Junior Johnson & Associates and driver Darrell Waltrip, after an incident at Richmond in February.

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were involved in a frightening crash while racing for the lead. Theirs were two of four cars eliminated from the race, which was won by Kyle Petty.

Junior fumed over the incident for some time. But he also realized that if his team was to win another championship, it was going to have to beat Earnhardt.

That, indeed, turned out to be the case.

Although Waltrip spent most of the remainder of the season second in points to Earnhardt he could not overtake him.

In fact, the season was almost half complete before Waltrip won a race. He won only three times in 29 starts. Teammate Neil Bonnet won just once.

It was one of the most lackluster performances for either of Johnson’s teams since the two-car operation began in 1984.

But then, there seemed to be a very good reason for that.

 

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

 

When I recall the Richmond incident, even today, I still can’t help but feel that Dale caused it. I think he did it on purpose.

Dale just couldn’t stand for Darrell to beat him with a pass that late in the race. So he pulled an old dirt-track trick.

Dale had been a good dirt-track racer in his early days. He learned a lot from his daddy, Ralph, who was as tough as there was on dirt.

When Darrell was almost past him, Dale just kept his left front wheel at a point where Darrell’s car wouldn’t take a set to get through the corner.

You have to cock the rear end out to get the car to turn, but Dale held his ground. Darrell couldn’t get the rear out.

So to me, as much as I had raced on dirt, it was clearly deliberate. Heck, in the early years I had done the same thing myself.

NASCAR handed out punishments to Dale – fines, probation, that sort of stuff. But I really don’t think he cared anything about that.

He was in his third season with team owner Richard Childress and their union had reached the point where Dale was confident in his cars.

He felt he could win anywhere. And he felt so confident in his ability that, well, I wonder if he sometimes thought he could get away with anything.

I was certain of one thing: He was the man we all had to beat.

Neil Bonnett won just one race for Junior in 1986 and finished 13th in the point standings. Well before season's end he announced that he was leaving the team - Waltrip did likewise.

For months after Richmond, Junior Johnson & Associates didn’t come close to beating Dale.

He won three of the nine races following Richmond. During that time, neither Darrell nor Neil won anything. As the 1986 season moved into June my teams were winless.

We had never gone that deep into a season without a victory. Even at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville – the short tracks on which we always seemed to do well – we came away winless.

It was puzzling and frustrating.

Finally, on June 1, Darrell got a victory. And it wasn’t easy. On the road course at Riverside, Calif., Darrell and Tim Richmond – a talented kid who drove for Rick Hendrick – were beating and banging on each other pretty hard during the closing laps.

At the end a race-closing  caution period began and Darrell managed to slip past Tim to win by four feet.

We needed that victory for a couple of reasons: First we had to restore our usual – and expected – level of performance. Riverside was a start.

Second, we had to keep some sort of pace with Dale. Even though it took us almost five full months to get the first win in 1986, Darrell was still second to Dale in the point standings.

After Riverside Darrell was 119 points behind. We had plenty of work to do, but then, there was time.

Remember I said Dale was the man to beat in ’86? After Riverside, it sure looked like that was not the case at all.

Tim went on a tear. He won four of the next six races and was the runnerup in one other. He was on one heckuva hot streak.

Darrell cooled him down, just a bit, with a victory over Terry Labonte at Bristol on Aug. 23. Hey, we won on a short track – now that was more like it.

We were still in the championship hunt. Dale finished fourth after an accident with Bobby Hillin Jr. So we came away 121 points behind Dale with nine races remaining.

We could do it. We’d made up more points than that with fewer races remaining.

Remarkably, Tim won the next two races at Darlington and Richmond – which dropped Darrell to third in points.

Darrell won at North Wilkesboro in September and was back in second place in points, 122 behind Earnhardt.

Darrell was feeling good about it so he pulled out the stops – at least verbally. He tried mind games on Dale. He said, “I would try to put some psychological stuff in the newspapers, but Dale and his boys can’t read.”

Dale pounced back after he won at Charlotte.

“I can read,” he said. “Just like in a kid’s early reading book, ‘See Darrell run his mouth. See Darrell fall.’”

Which, unfortunately, is exactly what Darrell did – make that what Junior Johnson & Associates did.

Dale won his second career championship by 288 points over Darrell.

Neil, who finally won at Rockingham in October, finished 13th in points.

There’s something I haven’t told you.

By June, everyone in racing knew that the 1986 season was going to be the last for Darrell and Neil at Junior Johnson & Associates.

I wasn’t surprised at all.

I had known for quite some time that it was coming.

Brave In Life: Junior Johnson Cheats Death Again

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson is back home and recovering slowly from a staph infection contracted during back surgery several weeks ago. The infection has not gone away but it is contained. Photo courtesy of Tom Higgins.

Only when he lies flat on his back does Junior Johnson feel no pain.

He can walk for a little more than 10 minutes before he begins to feel winded.

Food does not taste good and he has trouble swallowing.

Nevertheless, Johnson, the 81-year-old former NASCAR driver and team owner, does not complain. He’ll tell you it is better than the alternative.

“Reckon the Lord thought it wasn’t my time yet,” said Johnson, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, “for which I am grateful.”

Johnson came to the brink of death after contracting a raging staph infection at a North Carolina hospital.

Johnson entered the hospital in the first week of March to undergo another back surgery.

He had a similar operation performed several months earlier – his second, incidentally. But just three months afterward he injured his back again.

Johnson said he was using a forklift on his farm in Yadkin County, N.C. While he attempted to remove a tree, the vehicle’s prongs got tangled.

The forklift titled over with Johnson in it.

“Because of that my back got injured again,” Johnson said, adding that the metal rods installed in his back last year had been displaced, or in his words,  “broken.”

It was during the third round of back surgery that Johnson contracted the infection.

“I don’t know if it happened because of a dirty scalpel, or other piece of equipment or maybe it was because of a dirty needle,” he said. “But I do know that for about 35 minutes there, I was dead.”

Johnson added he could pinpoint the amount of time he was gone because “it took them 35 minutes to get all the equipment I needed to live hooked into me.”

Once revived, Johnson was taken to the intensive care unit and put into isolation. He remained there for five weeks.

“Either the staph was going to get me or I was going to get the staph,” Johnson said. “I’m much better now, but I sill have the infection. It’s still inside me.”

Johnson takes a daily regimen of medication to keep the infection at bay.

Obviously, the surgery to repair his back has not been performed.

“Those rods are still broken,” Johnson said. He is still in pain. While sitting he moves around a lot to find temporary comfort.

But he admitted he’s most comfortable when he can stretch out on a couch. There is no pain.

Johnson won 50 races as a driver and 132 as a team owner, along with six Winston Cup championships earned by drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – both of who are also in the Hall of Fame.

Johnson said his plans for the immediate future remain unaltered. He and his family will move to Charlotte in June, where they have already bought a house and will become neighbors to such NASCAR notables as team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates.

“I can’t really keep up with the farm any longer and don’t really want to,” said Johnson, who also owns cattle. “Besides, (son) Robert is going to Duke in the fall and (daughter) Meredith is already enrolled in a Charlotte high school.

“Most of the time, it will be just the two of us, my wife Lisa and I. We’re looking forward to living in Charlotte. It will be just the two of us, but living there will mean we’ll be a lot closer to a lot of different things.”

Johnson said his farm is yet to be sold, despite rumors that it had been purchased by a local winery. He’s confident that an owner – or owners – will be found.

Johnson said he feels better each day, but, obviously, he will require more medical attention – none of which he can receive until it’s certain he no longer has the infection.

Johnson admits he needs, and wants, a pacemaker.

“It’s something I have to have because my heart has an irregular heartbeat,” he said.

Johnson expressed his gratitude for the concerns and prayers offered him from people around the world. He insisted he would maintain his activities as best he can.

“You know, if I stop and think about it,” he said, “I’m 81 years old now and I think I’ve had a pretty good outing.”

 

 

For Junior, A Presidential Pardon Was A Great Start To The 1986 Season

Junior Johnson was certainly smiling after a successful 1985 season, but he was even happier when, late in the year, he received a Presidential Pardon.

Before the start of the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season, Junior Johnson was extremely confident that his teams, and drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett, could, once again, be winners and championship contenders.

Waltrip won the championship the year before and Bonnett finished fourth in the final point standings, which made Junior Johnson & Associates the most successful team in NASCAR.

With no significant personnel or sponsorship changes made for 1986, Junior’s teams appeared to be on solid footing.

As buoyed as Junior was over the prospects for the ’86 season, something else happened that was even more satisfying – at least personally.

He received a gift from the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

 

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

 

I have to be honest.

When 1986 rolled around, I was very comfortable and satisfied, professionally.

In 1985, Junior Johnson & Associates won a third Winston Cup championship with Darrell. The team remained intact with the promise of doing even better things in the upcoming season.

I thought things could not be better.

But in early in 1986, they got a lot better – well, personally, that is. What happened had nothing to do with racing, nothing at all.

On Dec. 26, 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed a presidential pardon for my moonshining conviction in 1956 – after they nabbed me at my Daddy’s still and I went to prison for 11 months in Ohio.

The announcement was made on Jan. 12, 1986, a day before the National Motorsports Press Association’s annual convention in Charlotte.

It made all the headlines.

OK, I admit it. I liked that. I wanted all of NASCAR, and the country for that matter, to know.

I filed the request for a pardon in 1981. As the years went by, I never gave up hope, because I was told that it would likely take some time.

Five years later it happened. The pardon was full and unconditional and retroactive to the completion of my sentence. It was a sign of forgiveness. It did not erase the record of conviction or indicate innocence.

However, it did restore basic civil rights, which are lost upon conviction of a felony. And among those was the right to vote.

Darrell Waltrip continued to drive a Chevrolet with Budweiser sponsorship in 1986. That season got off to a rocky, controversial start.

Let me tell you that the loss of basic civil rights impacts you in a way you can’t imagine. You come to think of yourself somewhat less than an American citizen. It’s not a good feeling.

The pardon was a tremendous Christmas present for me. I could not have imagined anything better.

I have to admit that it also vindicated me from an accusation that had, for years, prevented my induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

I became eligible for the hall in 1971. But the man in charge of the induction committee, Dick Herbert, who was the sports editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, refused to count any votes cast for me.

He called me “a common criminal.”

It was a long 10 years before I finally got voted into the hall. Don’t know what happened to Herbert but, finally, the votes cast for me by the other North Carolina sports writers were counted.

So with the pardon, I felt I had at last, without question, earned the honor. Reckon I was no longer a “common criminal.”

I didn’t think I could be any happier than to be inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. But the pardon topped that.

And I would be very remiss if I didn’t tell you that despite my run-ins with Bill France Jr. over the years, it was his family, along with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., that helped make the pardon possible.

So at the start of 1986, I was buoyed professionally and personally. I was counting on our teams, with Darrell and Neil, to provide a bigger boost – which, to me, meant winning races and even another championship if possible. That’s what racing is all about, right?

However, the season didn’t start well at all. In the Daytona 500, Darrell did good enough. He finished third in the race, won by Geoff Bodine after Dale Earnhardt ran out of gas with three laps remaining. Terry Labonte wound up second with Darrell behind him.

It was the third year in a row Darrell finished third. That might be a good thing for some owners, but, given what I knew Darrell and his team could do, it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew we were better than that.

For Neil, well, Daytona was a disaster. His Chevrolet had a broken wheel on the 100th lap – now how the heck can you ever figure that would happen? As a result he go into a multicar wreck with Joe Ruttman, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant and Cale.

What a mess. Neil wound up in 32nd place.

To me, it continued what had become an established trend for Junior Johnson & Associates, one I did not like.

It seemed that we always had a championship-caliber team with Darrell aboard. And, although Neil had done some great things (and even was, for a time, better than Darrell), the same could not be said for him.

Don’t misunderstand me here. Neil was a great driver. He performed well for us. He was a great representative for our team and very popular among the fans.

I just couldn’t understand why Neil, along with our team, could not move to a higher level.

I came to the decision that I would concentrate on Neil’s team and its efforts. It seemed to be the logical thing to do. I mean, Darrell and his bunch had long since matched their potential.

But it evolved that in just the second race of 1986, at Richmond, I had to put my concerns for Neil’s team aside.

Darrell and Junior Johnson & Associates – and myself, of course – got involved in one of the ugliest and most controversial finishes in NASCAR’s history.

It was one that played a big role in the outcome of the season.

 

 

 

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