The 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup season was going well enough for Junior Johnson & Associates.
By the 10th race of the season it had already won twice. But, oddly enough, Neil Bonnett, who became the team’s second driver a year earlier, earned both victories.
Darrell Waltrip, who had already won many races and two championships with Junior, was winless.
It was a situation that caused Junior some concern.
He had no doubt Waltrip would win but there was a major obstacle that hadn’t been present in previous seasons.
Bill Elliott was thrashing the competition. The young Georgia driver was dominant on the superspeedways, so much so that every Winston Cup team knew that to win a major event meant taking the measure of Elliott, something that was seemingly impossible to do through the first third of the 1985 season.
It was indeed small, but at Charlotte in May,Waltrip and Junior took one step toward doing just that.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.comwill appear every other Friday throughout the season.
After 10 races in 1985 – one-third of the season – I had some mixed feelings about my two-car team.
Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t doubt the fact that two operations would work. I knew that was entirely possible if for no other reason than Junior Johnson & Associates had done very well in 1984.
It’s just that I was very pleased with one team and a little concerned about the other.
Neil didn’t win with me in 1984 but he quickly made up for that with two victories in 10 races in 1985. I had no worries about his team because it was clear progress was being made.
On the other hand, Darrell had not won a single race through a third of the season. He won seven races a year earlier so I had reason to be a bit puzzled.
Also, Darrell and I had enjoyed so much success in the past I think it was just logical that I was a little concerned about what was going on, so far, in 1985.
Speaking of being concerned, every team in NASCAR, including mine, was concerned about Bill Elliott.
He was wearing us all out. By May he had already won seven races – all on superspeedways.
Additionally, he had already won two of four selected races that made up the inaugural Winston Million program.
If any driver won three of those races, which were the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington, he would collect a $1 million bonus.
Bill had already won at Daytona and Talladega. The 10th race of the season was at Charlotte. The bonus money was all but in his hands.
The Coca-Cola 600 was scheduled for May 26. The Winston, the new “all star” event open to 1984 race winners only, was set for a day earlier, also at Charlotte.
It was going to be a very special weekend for NASCAR.
And, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also going to be very special for Junior Johnson & Associates.
Darrell’s team was one of only 12 that could enter
The Winston. It was a 70-lap race that paid $200,000 to the winner.
I made special plans to assure that Darrell was that winner.
And he was.
Although at first it didn’t appear that was going to be the case. With 10 laps to go, Darrell trailed leader Harry Gant by 3.1 seconds.
I got on the radio and said to Darrell, “Boy, do you want that $200,000 or $75,000 for second place?”
I thought that would fire him up and sure enough, Darrell made up the distance and got past Harry in the fourth turn just as the white flag flew. Darrell won by less than a second.
He had barely crossed the finish line when the engine blew. I thought to myself, “Man, we got lucky.”
Those “special plans” I told you about were basically this: I had told my engine guys to construct a motor that would last a little over 100 miles. It was supposed to be built for horsepower and not endurance.
That’s exactly what my guys did – and they did it almost to the very foot. No question we were extremely lucky because failure could have happened one, two or more laps earlier.
Of course the timing of that failure made the other teams upset. They claimed I had ordered Darrell to mash the clutch and kill what they thought was an illegal engine as soon as he took the checkered flag.
Johnny Hayes, Harry’s team owner, complained loudest, saying I was up to my usual tricks. There was plenty more grousing, too.
OK, I agree it looked suspicious.
But Harry said he had smelled something when Darrell passed him and he thought it was his own engine getting ready to blow.
And, although Darrell’s engine was destroyed, there was enough of it left for NASCAR to inspect, which it did.
NASCAR checked out the bore and stroke and said that the engine was legal.
Case closed, as far as I was concerned.
The Winston eased a lot of my concerns. It might not have been a points race but at least Darrell won – at last – and we made a lot of money.
Oh, and we beat the guy now known as “Awesome Bill.” He finished in seventh place.
So I knew Darrell’s team could get the job done.
The only way to strengthen my belief was to win a points-paying race and, as a bonus, beat red-hot Bill in so doing.
I would never have imagined it at the time, but that would happen just one day after The Winston.