There was little reason for them. After all, with Darrell Waltrip aboard as driver, the team had won consecutive titles, in 1981 and 1982, and had come so very close to a third in a row – which would have matched the record set by Cale Yarborough in 1976-78 when he drove for Junior.
However, not only were there mere changes, there were almost unprecedented changes.
With the participation of financial partner Warner Hodgdon, Junior re-fitted his entire organization.
It would become something that had rarely been attempted and only once had been successful in NASCAR history.
There weren’t many who believed that what Junior had done could possibly match it.
In 1984 the evidence would come soon enough.
Junior’s commentaries, and more, will return to www.motorsportsunplugged.com in January 2012.
Perhaps the most drastic changes I made at Junior Johnson & Associates came late in 1983 as we prepared for the ’84 season.
Now, I had shaken up things a bit in the past, that’s for sure. Carling Brewery actually bought my team in 1974 and we fielded a car for a Canadian rookie, Earl Ross, as well as one for Cale.
But what was to be a long-term arrangement ended after just one season and I was easily able to buy back my entire team.
Then, in 1982 for the ’83 season, I took on Warner Hodgdon, a California real estate developer, as a partner. I thought his input would be good for the team and, in fact, it was.
The first season with Hodgdon was a very good one despite the fact that, with Darrell driving, we came up short in our effort to win a third-straight championship.
We lost it by 47 points to Bobby Allison, who won the first title of his career – and, as I’ve said more than once, would have captured a whole lot sooner had he raced for me beyond the 1972 season.
But just before the 1984 season started, well, I reckon I let loose with a bombshell.
In November of 1983, I announced, with Hodgdon, that our team would switch from Pepsi sponsorship to Anheuser-Busch for 1984. I had worked with the company before with its Busch brand of beer, but this time it was going to be Budweiser.
And there was something else.
Junior Johnson & Associates would become a two-car team. Hodgdon was going to bring Neil Bonnett over from Rahmoc Enterprises to be our second driver under the Budweiser sponsorship.
We were going to be a multicar team – a rarity in NASCAR. It had happened only a few times in the past. I tired it a decade earlier and as I recall, the Pettys did it a couple of times in the early ‘70s, although not on a full schedule, with drivers Pete Hamilton and Buddy Baker.
And Carl Kiekhaefer made history with his multicar, championship team of the 1950’s.
Darrell wasn’t thrilled with the two-car concept. In fact, he didn’t like it a bit. Except for Kiekhaefer, no one had made it work.
I told Darrell that I’d make sure he wasn’t held back any by Neil’s team. And by the end of the season it was easy to see I kept my word.
The season started just about as well as it could for us. Neil won the Busch Clash at Daytona with a last-lap pass on Baker.
Darrell was masterful in the Daytona 500 but lost it when Cale and Dale Earnhardt came slinging by on the last lap.
By August, Darrell had won four races, at Bristol, Darlington, Nashville and Michigan. On the other hand, Neil hadn’t won but had
turned in some impressive performances.
Actually he would have won at Nashville if NASCAR hadn’t ruled in Darrell’s favor. Let me explain:
Darrell was leading on lap 418 of 420 when the yellow and white flags flew simultaneously following an accident. Neil passed Darrell and NASCAR gave him the checkered flag.
Darrell protested, saying he had been passed illegally.
Heck, I didn’t discourage him. Whatever ruling NASCAR handed down would be fine with me. My team would win either way – although I do admit I was hoping it would be Neil just for his personal satisfaction.
Two days later, however, NASCAR ruled in Darrell’s favor.
As the season moved into its closing months, Darrell was to win three more times. We ended the season with seven victories, more than twice as many as any other team.
But he won only two races.
As fate would have it, despite the fact that he won more races than anyone else, Darrell finished fifth in points, behind Labonte, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott and Dale. None of them won more than three times during the year.
As you might imagine, Darrell wasn’t very happy. He didn’t think a driver who won the most races should be shut out of a championship.
Heck, I agreed.
“Winning ought to award more points; bonus points,” Darrell said. “We’ve won more than anybody and we should at least be in contention for the championship. We ought to have a system that rewards running to win, not running just to finish.”
You know what? It’s pretty ironic that such a system is just what NASCAR has had for several years now.
Neil didn’t win in his first year with me, but he did have 14 top-10 finishes and wound up eighth in points.
Not a bad start for a multicar team, in my opinion.
However, it was just that – a start.
I didn’t know it at the time but a rocky road was ahead.