However, things weren’t quite the same in 1983. Junior decided to take on a business partner; a team co-owner who would provide an infusion of money needed during a time when NASCAR organizations were clawing for sponsorships.
And, as had been in seasons past, the year did not start off well. Waltrip was involved in a serious crash at Daytona that left him virtually a shell of himself for a few weeks. Junior believes his driver never fully recovered from the incident.
A strong challenge was issued early from Bobby Allison, a long-time rival for Waltrip and Junior Johnson & Associates.
For much of the season, Junior’s team was up to the challenge – at least it was within striking distance of Allison’s DiGard Racing Co. team, which raced its way to No. 1 in the point standings.
The scenario seemed to be much the same as it was in 1982, when Allison and Waltrip fought it out in a memorable battle for the championship.
But then, the season wasn’t over.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
I know that many folks were stunned with a decision I made prior to the start of the 1983 season, but I did it because the offer was good and NASCAR was enduring a time when teams were scrapping for sponsors – and I didn’t want mine to be one of them.
When California businessman Warner Hodgdon – a real estate developer – came to me in late summer or early fall of 1982, he asked me about buying into my name and into Junior Johnson & Associates.
I took the offer because it was sound. It gave the team additional financial backing and it added to our sponsorship packages. It made Hodgdon my partner.
I had done something like this before, with Carling Brewery, almost a decade earlier. It didn’t last long but it proved worthwhile for me.
I thought it could be the same, even better, with Hodgdon. He had a half-interest in the Bristol, Nashville, North Wilkesboro and Richmond tracks. He sponsored both races at Rockingham and was a co-owner of the Rahmoc Enterprises team and driver Neil Bonnett.
So we began the 1983 season infused with new money, which, as you might think, raised our hopes for yet another championship with Darrell.
I have to admit I thought about how special it would be to win three consecutive titles with two different drivers. That would make NASCAR history.
But it seemed we were doomed almost from the start.
At Daytona, Darrell was involved in serious crash that began after Dale Earnhardt suffered a blown engine. Darrell hit the inside wall along turn four really hard. He was taken to Halifax Hospital where it was learned he had suffered a concussion. He was kept overnight and released.
Darrell couldn’t remember anything about Daytona but he returned to race the next week at Richmond. Looking back, he shouldn’t have done that. He was hurt far more than we suspected. He qualified fourth but dropped out of the race before the halfway point with a mechanical failure.
I thought Darrell was in a fog for the whole Richmond weekend. Sometime afterward he admitted to me that, just like Daytona, he didn’t remember a thing about the race.
I think his injury kept Darrell from accomplishing a lot more in future years. I think he would have done much more if that hadn’t happened.
Darrell has downplayed that over the years but does admit that to race at Richmond so soon after the crash was probably a fool thing to do.
“Hindsight makes you a lot smarter,” he said.
After Richmond, it certainly appeared things were going to be just fine. Darrell ran third a week later at Rockingham. He then won for the first time in 1983 at North Wilkesboro to start a streak of four victories in six races, adding victories at Martinsville, Nashville and Bristol.
But we couldn’t get the points lead. After Darrell won at Bristol, for his 15th victory in 20 short-track races, he was just hanging on to the top-five in the standings.
The leader? Do I really have to tell you? After two seasons of head-to-head battles with Darrell, and losing them both, out in front was Bobby Allison, our old nemesis. He was still driving for DiGard Racing Co.
Bobby admitted he was miserable after losing the championship, closely, over the previous two seasons. He said that in 1983 he was going for the title harder than ever and that, sooner or later, he would win one.
I never doubted his resolve.
So the situation was simple: If Darrell and I were to win a third-straight title we’d have to beat Bobby.
Certainly Bobby knew he’d have to beat us to win the championship. And he was going to do everything he could to do just that – even running his mouth.
When Bobby won at Dover in May, he said that we had been cheating all along and that he had won the race because he had been given our “secrets” from a former Johnson-Hodgdon employee. Funny thing, but he wouldn’t divulge exactly what those “secrets” were.
Bobby started a war of words. I knew he was going to lose it and I wouldn’t have to say a thing.
The very next week Darrell won at Bristol. He beat Bobby and they were the only two drivers on the lead lap. As I thought he would, Darrell pounced.
“Obviously we haven’t given away all of our secrets, have we?” he said in victory lane. I loved it.
Unfortunately, Darrell didn’t have the chance to fire off a few more verbal salvos for the next three months. We didn’t win a race. Bobby won only once but his other finishes were good enough to keep him ahead of us in the point standings.
Reckon I knew just how badly Bobby wanted to win the championship at the Talladega 500 in July. Darrell and Dale were fighting for the lead. On the last lap, Bobby tucked in behind Dale and gave him the push he needed to win the race.
Thing about it was, Bobby was a lap down. He had no business getting involved. He shouldn’t have been sticking his nose into it – hey, he was in ninth place with no chance to win. He should have let Darrell and Dale decide it between them.
“No doubt about it,” Darrell said. “Bobby won his one for Dale.”
It showed just how much Bobby coveted the championship; how much he wanted to, at last, take the measure of Darrell and our team. He would do whatever it took. That was obvious.
After Talladega, Darrell was 170 points behind Bobby in the standings. There were 11 races remaining in the season.
There was plenty of time left to make up the difference.
I certainly didn’t know it then, but there was also plenty of time for some of the most unusual events in NASCAR’s history to unfold.