Three of the men who drove for him during his long, storied career as a team owner would surely join him in the Hall – just one year after he was enshrined as a member of its inaugural class. By any measurement it would be a remarkable achievement.
But it didn’t happen.
One of the drivers – Bobby Allison, who drove to 10 wins for Johnson in 1972 – was elected. The other two, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, were not. And many were very surprised by their absence.
Yarborough drove for Johnson from 1973-1980, won 45 races and three consecutive championships from 1976-1978.
Waltrip joined Johnson in 1981 and campaigned with him for six seasons. He won 45 races and championships in 1981, 1982 and 1985.
In their combined careers Waltrip and Yarborough won 90 races and all six of their championships were earned with Johnson. Many considered them shoo-ins for induction into the hall. Johnson was one of them. Instead, the second class is composed of David Pearson, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore and Allison.
While Johnson admitted his disappointment over the final outcome, he quickly added had no problems with it. “I thought it went OK,” said Johnson, who won 50 races as a driver. “Some of the guys people thought would or should get in didn’t and some people thought wouldn’t get in did. I thought that if David didn’t go in this time it would be very, very unfair. “But it’s a vote and it’s what you go by. You can’t tell people how to vote. You can try but they are going to vote their own way.”
Johnson said there were, in his opinion, a couple of things that worked against Waltrip and Yarborough. “If you go simply by records Darrell and Cale should have been voted in,” Johnson said. “But there was a whole lot of talk about what the nominees did for the sport and not just their records.
“It was well discussed among all the voters and it was pretty much plain that it was not all about what a driver did in terms of wins or anything else on the track, it was also about what he did for the sport overall.” Given that, Johnson said he could understand why the votes went against Yarborough. “Cale came into the sport and made a lot of money,” Johnson said. “But when he went home he pretty much just enjoyed himself. Didn’t hear him much or see him.”
That can’t be said for Waltrip who has been a strong presence on television for years and is known for his candid opinions. Fact is, Waltrip was opinionated and sometimes acid-tongued throughout his career. At times he was at odds with other drivers, fans and even NASCAR. Johnson agreed some lingering hostility toward Waltrip might have affected the vote – but it shouldn’t have.
“I don’t think a lot of people put Darrell in the category of being elected,” he said. “I don’t see why but that’s the way it is. I know Darrell could run his mouth. So what? I would rather a man be outspoken than not speak at all. The one that doesn’t speak at all is most times the one who is toting a gun or a knife.” Johnson also said he thought some voters felt obligated to try to elect competitors from NASCAR’s distant past – those who were the sport’s pioneers and whose achievements might otherwise go unrecognized.
“I understand about reaching back and electing some of the people who accomplished much years ago and are getting old,” Johnson said. “Hell, I’m one of them. Bud and Ned had very, very good records in NASCAR and they have some years on them. And you can’t deny they helped the sport grow. They deserve to be in the Hall, no question about it.” Waltrip and Yarborough deserve to be in the Hall, too, and Johnson knows their time is coming. To him – and virtually everyone else – it’s inevitable.
But Johnson expected it would have already happened. He envisioned that on Oct. 13, three of his drivers would join him in the hall. For him it would have been the perfect scenario.
“Oh yeah, I thought about it,” Johnson said. “I thought about it a lot. But I accept what’s happened.”