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.

Unfortunately, Kurt Busch Just Doesn’t Get It

Kurt Busch is a proven winner and a past NASCAR champion. However, his continued confrontations with the media, fellow competitors and others has cast a great deal of negative attention on his career.

This is most likely on the tail end of the list of commentaries about Kurt Busch but I want to raise some points anyway – largely because I’ve been asked by more than a few to do so.

As you know, Busch has been suspended until June 13 and his current probation, which was to end on July 25, has now been extended until Dec. 31.

All of this is a result of Busch’s verbal altercation with veteran reporter Bob Pockrass – one of the best in the business – following the Nationwide Series race at Dover on June 2.

Busch was caught on SPEED video berating, and even threatening, Pockrass because he asked a followup question about Busch’s altercation with Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide event.

Among other things Busch said that his probation “refrains me from beating the s— out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions.”

Two points to make here:

Pockrass’ question was anything but stupid. It was simply logical to ask Busch if he refrained from roughing it up with Allgaier because Busch was on probation.

As for probation, it was Busch himself who brought up the subject in the first place. He did so in a post-race interview with ESPN.

Did he really think reporters would not follow up on that? I hope he’s not that dumb.

But then, Busch simply doesn’t get it – not at all.

Don’t take my word for it. Simply look up the litany of run-ins he’s had with the media over the years.

Add those he’s encountered with fellow competitors, and even an Arizona sheriff’s department, and you will learn that Busch has yet to figure out his problem. In fact, over the years he has simply intensified it.

You’ll reach the same conclusion I share with many people.

Which is, simply, Busch doesn’t get it – not at all.

Despite that he won the 2004 championship, and many races, with Roush Fenway Racing, Busch’s repeated controversial confrontations – topped by his arrogance and emotional rants when stopped near Phoenix International Raceway for a traffic violation – forced Roush to get rid of him.

A team spokesman said, “We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”

Busch, admittedly a very talented driver, joined Penske Racing in 2006 and stayed there for six years. He won races.

But I suspect he always had a tenuous relationship with team members.

Nearly everyone thought the same when they heard Busch berate his crew members with profanity-filled tirades via radio during a race – many times, I might add.

Busch’s tenure at Penske came to an end last year. Busch called it a “mutual decision.” I’ll take his word for it.

However, I do believe that team owner Roger Penske’s patience had come to an end.

For a myriad of reasons Busch did not land a ride with the type of team to which he had become accustomed.

None of them came calling.

Which, in my opinion, should have set off alarms for Busch.

But he just doesn’t get it.

Busch now drives for James Finch (left) whose Phoenix Racing team won at Talladega with driver Brad Keselowski. Finch has indicated he won't tolerate Busch's behavior.

Instead Busch entered into a handshake agreement with James Finch, owner of Phoenix Racing.

For Busch it was clearly a step backward.

Which is not to be critical of Finch’s team. It has earned a victory and, overall, has done very well given the circumstances under which it exits.

But it’s fair to say that it can’t perform at NASCAR’s top level because it can’t match the resources of the elite teams. Even today it operates without a full-time sponsor.

Busch said that to be a part of Phoenix Racing was to have fun again because he would pitch right in and help prepare for every race.

And he had the opportunity to rebuild his image.

He hasn’t taken advantage of it.

At Darlington, Busch drew the ire of Ryan Newman’s crew when he did an anger-driven burnout through the team’s pit box after being involved in a crash.

After the race Busch and some of Newman’s crewmen were involved in an altercation.

There was an altercation that involved Busch? Really? So what else is new?

NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 and placed him on probation, which is how things stood until Dover.

Now he won’t be able to race at Pocono and has to be a good boy for the remainder of 2012.

If he does so count me as one of many who will be surprised.

With his latest episode Busch has only validated his reputation as arrogant and immature.

As such he’s done harm, again, to himself and to Finch’s team. Let’s face it, what kind of success in a sponsorship hunt can Finch expect given his driver’s proven reputation?

As things are now can you imagine any company’s desire to use Busch as a spokesman?

Finch may be a very witty and gregarious guy who has hung around NASCAR since 1990, but he’s a keen businessman and nobody’s fool. He’s already said he will hold Busch accountable for his actions.

And he’s indicated strongly that he may take action much sooner than later.

Let’s get one thing straight: Those who claim Busch is good for NASCAR because he’s the villain the sport needs are misguided.

I agree a villain always provides spice to racing.

But that villain has always plied his style on the track. He was very aggressive, known to tangle with others and on occasion simply applied whatever tactics he could, as blatant as they may be, to win – and the consequences be damned.

Fans either loved the guy or hated him. They chose sides and couldn’t wait to see what might happen next.

How could NASCAR not benefit from that?

Villains did not become what they were by berating media members or NASCAR. That should be duly noted.

Sure, they stated their case, whatever it might be, to the press. But why shouldn’t they? Most of them realized it served their cause – which was to gain even more notoriety by stoking the fire.

They were not about to back down over who they were or what they wanted to achieve or how they were going to do it. For much of their careers, they gave no quarter and asked for none.

These villains had names – Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart come to mind.

Of that group only Stewart can be mentioned as one who vented, verbally or physically, against the media.

That was a while back. Seems he has learned some lessons.

Clearly Busch has not.

There is a big difference between being called out for actions on the track as opposed to boorish behavior toward the media – or others, for that matter.

I think fans expect the former. Many of them enjoy it and wouldn’t mind to see more.

But, as for the latter, they realize it does not in any way characterize a rough-and-tough driver they can appreciate.

To them, it sends out only one message: That driver is not an on-track villain. He’s nothing more than an immature brat.

And again, I don’t think – as talented as he is – Kurt Busch gets it. Not at all.

 

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