Junior Johnson was unable to sign Dale Earnhardt as his driver for 1987 due to sponsor objection. So he turned to Terry Labonte, the 1984 Winston Cup champion.
Labonte was a quiet sort – certainly a different type than Darrell Waltrip, who had left Junior after six successful seasons.
But Johnson had no problem with that. He knew Labonte wouldn’t make waves and he hoped that the Texan would go on winning races in his cold, methodical way.
The ’87 season was a new start for Junior Johnson & Associates. Not only did it have a new driver, it also had been re-shaped to become a single-car organization after competing with two for three years.
Things began reasonably well.
But another driver came out of the gate so powerfully he quickly established himself as the man to beat for the championship.
He was the one Johnson had wanted.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
The fact that I wasn’t able to hire Dale as my driver for 1987 was disappointing, that’s for sure.
But I don’t want anyone to think I wasn’t pleased that Terry came on board at Junior Johnson & Associates.
He was a winning driver. He’d been winning races almost from the first time he showed up in NASCAR back in 1979.
He was the 1984 Winston Cup champion driving for Billy Hagan. Now, I am not taking anything away from Hagan – not at all. But I knew my team had more resources than his.
That was obvious after Terry left him. Hagan was having financial problems.
So I thought that with better equipment Terry would be able to make more use of his talent – and that could mean really good things for my team.
But I also felt Dale was going to have a really good year, perhaps even a better one than his 1986 championship season.
He and Richard Childress were beginning to really click; to hit their stride. I thought that in ’86 when Dale beat Darrell for the title and I reasoned that Dale’s success that year was only going to increase his momentum.
I certainly wasn’t the only one who believed that. Dale was getting a lot of media attention. And his popularity with the fans – well, maybe it’s better to say his notoriety – was increasing. Terry wasn’t nearly as flamboyant as Dale, not to mention Darrell. He was always known as a driver who quietly got the job done – and that was fine with me.
But things did not start very well. During the first four races of the year, the best we could finish was fourth at Atlanta.
Before that, we had problems at Daytona and finished three laps down to Bill Elliott. We were eighth at Rockingham and fifth at Richmond.
At that point I wasn’t overly concerned. I expected Junior Johnson & Associates to undergo a period of adjustment.
We had made major changes after the 1986 season, which should be obvious since we downsized to a single car after the departures of Darrell and Neil.
We had to make some personnel adjustments and while I think the core of people on the job was as talented as any I ever had, we still had some situations where guys had new jobs to which they had to adapt.
And, of course, we had a new driver and many times that requires some adaptations, particularly between driver and crew chief.
So to start 1987 with three top-10 finishes in four races wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a spectacular start, but it was a good, steady one.
But remember what I said about Dale’s momentum? It hit an even higher gear after the start of the season.
In four races he won twice and finished fifth once. His worst run was at Atlanta, where he wound up 16th.
He came into Atlanta as the points leader and although he didn’t have a good day, he was still on top when it was over. In fact, he increased his lead to 61 points over Bill, who suffered a blown engine.
Dale was red-hot. I was not surprised.
But we were still very much in the hunt and, yes, there was a long way to go.
Then trouble hit – hard.
At Darlington, only the fifth race of the season, Terry was injured in a severe wreck.
On the 145thlap, just 22 from the end, Benny Parsons looped his car and that set off a chain reaction. Morgan Shepherd and Terry were behind Benny, they had no place to go and they got their cars turned around.
If it had ended there everything would have been OK. But, unfortunately, our Budweiser Chevrolet was hit broadside by Ricky Rudd.
The impact broke Terry’s shoulder. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to drive, obviously. The question was, how long?
Oh, and Dale won the race. He slammed into the wall with four laps to go while he was cashing Bill, the leader.
But Dale kept going. Now, no one thought he was going to win, but darned if Bill didn’t run out of gas on the last lap. Dale cruised by for the victory.
He now had three victories in six races.
North Wilkesboro was the next race and as most of you know by now, that was my home track. My cars were always expected to win there, or at least do well.
But with Terry out I figured our chances to do either had dwindled.
I had to get a driver to replace him. I will admit that I really wasn’t satisfied with what few were available.
So I did something unusual. I selected a rookie, Brett Bodine, to drive our Chevrolet. I’m not sure if he had even competed in a race in 1987.
Yeah, that raised a few eyebrows, but I reasoned that he was anxious to get a chance. He was very hungry to prove himself.
And, as a rookie, he would listen to what he was told and be very careful with the car.
NASCAR rules said a rookie could not perform a relief appearance in a Winston Cup event. But NASCAR said Brett could drive for Terry. However, official records would list him as a relief driver only.
Fine with me – actually, that is the way we had it planned. Terry drove one pace lap and then turned the wheel over to Brett, who drove the entire race and did a darn good job.
He finished eighth. Terry got all 142 points Brett earned which meant we had another top-10 finish and we were still in contention for the championship.
But we were falling behind. For that matter, so was everyone else.
That’s because Dale easily won at North Wilkesboro. It was his fourth victory in six starts. He remained hot, very hot.
Hard to believe, but he was going to get even hotter in 1987.
I would like to tell you that we warmed up quite a bit, too. But I can’t.