NASCAR Cup Series

EXCLUSIVE: Johnny Rutherford talks Daytona, Smokey Yunick

Ty Dillon had a great run at Darlington Raceway Sunday night, driving the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet to a 13th-place finish in the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Dillon’s black-and-gold throwback paint scheme at Darlington paid homage to the legendary mechanic, car builder, team owner and all-around rascal Smokey Yunick, and it was one of the best-looking cars on the track.

Yunick’s daughter Trish was at Darlington and so was Lone Star J.R., Johnny Rutherford himself. Now 79 years old, Rutherford looks and sounds like he’s about 50. In a spectacular racing career, Rutherford won three Indianapolis 500s and in his first NASCAR start in 1963, he drove Yunick’s black-and-gold Chevrolet Impala to a victory in one of the two Daytona 500 qualifying races. Back then, unlike today, the 500 qualifying races counted for points.

To this day, Rutherford’s victory at Daytona in 1963 is the only time the No. 13 has ever won a NASCAR Premier Series race in 530 attempts.

In an exclusive interview with, Lone Star JR talked about racing at Daytona with Smokey back in the day.

“It was a thrill ride for me to be out of sprint cars,” said Rutherford. “I was just a sprint car driver running the fair circuit for IMCA.I had never driven a late-model stock car in my life. So, a friend of mine in Dallas, a Pontiac dealer, called me and said, ‘You think you’d ever like to run a stock car at Daytona?’

“And I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I was a young, 24-year-old, ready to go,” said Rutherford. “So I went over to his place and went in his office and he made a phone call, talked for a minute and he said, ‘Yeah, he’s right here, I’ll put him on.’ And he handed me the phone and said, ‘Here, talk to Smokey Yunick.’”

That was all the encouragement Rutherford needed, as he knew Yunick fielded the race-winning car in the 1962 Daytona 500 with Fireball Roberts. “Boy, you could have knocked me over with a feather, because Smokey was a big name in NASCAR,” said Rutherford.

Yunick wanted to know how fast Rutherford could get to Daytona, so the next day he packed up for Florida. Rutherford was there by the next day.

But consider this: Having never driven a stock car before, Rutherford had to climb to the 1963 Chevy Impala and acclimate himself to running 165 mile-per-hour laps on skinny bias-ply tires, with no HANS device, no SAFER barriers and not much more to protect him than a roll cage and seat and shoulder belts.  “The safety issues were zip,” he said. “If you hit the wall you were going to get hurt pretty bad.”

So Rutherford got some sound advice from experienced drivers.

“Smokey said, ‘You’re going to need somebody to answer questions about this place. I’ll be right back,’” Rutherford said. “He came back in about 10 minutes with two guys with him and he said, ‘Here, I want you to meet Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly.’ And they were my tutors for my first Daytona 500.”

Weatherly, a Virginia native and defending NASCAR Premier Series champion, had a thick accent Rutherford struggled to understand, but he told the young Texan, “run it flat-footed, all the way around here.”

“And so I did,” said Rutherford. “I ran it flat-footed all the way around there and set the record and won the qualifying race,” he said. Yes, he did. Rutherford bested future NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Rex White, Fred Lorenzen and Ned Jarrett to win his 40-lap qualifying race and went on to finish ninth in the Daytona 500.

“It launched my career,” said Rutherford, who was offered a permanent ride by Yunick but turned it down to chase his dream of racing in the Indy 500. “I can understand that,” Yunick told him.

And after his success at Daytona, Indy car owners started calling Rutherford and the rest, as they say, is history.

By Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.