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WAID’S WORLD: Just As It Was For Gant, Elliott’s Time Will Come

Often in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup racing, a driver catches our attention, not necessarily because of his penchant for winning, but for his potential to win.

We know he has all the talent and when his skills are meshed with a powerful team that is a proven winner; heck, it’s only a matter of time before he takes a checkered flag.

We await the moment, confident it will come. Alas, sometimes it comes later than sooner. And sometimes we can’t help but think, “Hey, is this guy going to win anytime soon? Were we wrong about him?”

In so many cases we found out we weren’t wrong at all. The driver realized his potential and, as has happened so often over the years, one victory leads to another, then another, then another …..

A good example of this came in the early 1980s when Harry Gant advanced to what was then known as the Winston Cup Series.

Gant, from Taylorsville, N.C., had been a stalwart in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman circuit, the predecessor to today’s XFINITY Series. He was a winner. He was popular. He could have spent his entire career on the tour and gone into NASCAR lore as one of the best.

But he decided to pursue an opportunity. In 1980 he joined Jack Beebe’s fledgling team. Mot observers agree Gant had the ability to win in Winston Cup competition but they weren’t sure if it would happen with Beebe’s team.

They were certain in 1981. Gant ran so well that the prevailing opinion said he would win and that it was only a matter of time.

But as the season progressed the thinking was, yes, he would win – but isn’t taking a bit more time than originally thought?

It seemed that Gant came within striking distance week after week only to fall just short.

He scored several top 10s and top fives but the real kicker was that he finished in second place seven times.

Folks took notice. So did the media. One wag even wrote, “Harry Gant went to a barber shop that had only one seat, which was empty. The barber pointed at him and said, ‘You’re second.’ ”

Gant did not win in ’81. With Hal Needham’s team he didn’t win during the opening stages of 1982 either. But he emerged triumphant at Martinsville in the spring. He was 42, an age when many drivers contemplate retirement.

From that point on no one wondered if Gant, now known as “The Skoal Bandit,” would win again. He won 17 times before he retired at age 54.

Now, Chase Elliott is only 21 years old. He’s in his second full season with Hendrick Motorsports.

From the time he entered Monster Series competition he was pegged a certain winner. He had already displayed his talent and his racing genes were irrefutable – he’s the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott.

Like it was for Gant, when it comes to Elliott most of us have reasoned that the situation is not can he win, but when will he win?

He hasn’t won yet. But like Gant he has come excruciatingly close.

He already has nine top five finishes this year and four of them are runnerup. Almost incredibly, he has finished second in three of the last four races.

He’s not knocking on the door of victory; he’s pounding on it. But it hasn’t been opened – yet.

It will. I believe most of us think it is going to happen much sooner than later, perhaps before the 2017 season is over.

“From where we were in those middle stages of the race at Charlotte, I was proud of the way we fought back and were able to get back to the front,” said Elliott, who finished second and is virtually certain to make the round of eight in the playoffs. “It’s frustrating to run like this. We’re definitely tired of running second.

“But, if we keep running like we are, hopefully the opportunities will be there.”

Ultimately they were there for Gant.

They will also be there for Elliott.

As has been said before, it’s just a matter of time.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: The All-Star Race Had Humble, Simple Beginnings

The NASCAR Monster Energy All Star race will be conducted this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway and it will be the latest in a series of special, exhibition events that have taken place since 1985.

The race has provided some of the most dramatic, exciting moments in NASCAR’s history.

That’s largely because of its format. It’s changed so many times over the years it is hard to keep track. But suffice it to say that the structure of the race – including segments, pit stops, inverted starts and a 10-lap free-for-all for a finish – is designed to provide controlled mayhem.

And for the most part, it’s worked.

It wasn’t always like that, however.

The first race, called The Winston by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. – NASCAR’s prime sponsor and creator of the all-star event – was something of a simple affair.

The format was simple. The race would be held among the 12 winners from the 1984 season. That’s all. It would be 70 laps in distance with no segments, breaks or anything else, at Charlotte.

It was much like the Busch Clash that began at Daytona a few years earlier. It was a short race open to pole winners only.

In 1985, the number of victories in 1984 determined starting positions. There was no full-scale qualifying.

Therefore, 1994 champion Terry Labonte was accorded the pole position. Alongside him was Darrell Waltrip, who was in his fourth season with team owner Junior Johnson.

Waltrip immediately took the lead when the race started. However, there was a $10,000 bonus for the driver who led the 20th lap and Labonte made sure he collected the money when he passed Waltrip down the backstretch.

Pit stops, which were necessary because of the race’s length, began on lap 31 when Harry Gant, driving for Hal Needham, went down pit road.

After the cycle of stops ended, Gant held a comfortable lead over Labonte and Waltrip.

Suddenly, Waltrip became inspired.

“Junior got on the radio and asked me if I wanted the $200,000 to win or $75,000 for second place,” Waltrip said. “I decided to give it my all.”

Sure enough, Waltrip began to cut away at Gant’s lead. It was a steady process as Gant had older tires.

On the last lap Waltrip slipped by Gant in turn four to win by 0.31-second and create an anticipated dramatic finish to the first all-star race.

But then came the unexpected – and accompanying controversy.

Just as he crossed the finish line the engine in Waltrip’s Chevrolet blew in a huge plume of smoke. It was almost as if it had been timed to happen.

Immediately the conspiracy theorists began to rumble. They determined that Waltrip raced with illegal, oversized engine – something Johnson was certainly capable of providing – and then mashed the clutch at the finish line to avoid detection.

If NASCAR suspected anything there was nothing it could do about it. How does it inspect a blown engine?

For his part Waltrip, who was $200,000 richer, said only that his engine was designed for ultimate power and a short lifetime.

“Before the race the boys told me not to run it any harder than I had to,” he said. “It wasn’t going to last long.”

That didn’t halt suspicions, which continue to this day.

The Winston was deemed a success. But there were issues.

At first it was decided the event would be held at multiple tracks so all of them could share in the glory and anticipated income.

But Charlotte remained steadfast. It declared that with its marketing skills and noted penchant for creating splashy spectacles it should remain home to the all-star race. It only made sense.

But Reynolds decided the race should share the wealth. Thus it was moved to Atlanta in 1986.

Big mistake.

The number of laps was increased to 83 but there were only 10 entrants – all winners from 1985.

The race was an unadulterated snoozer. Bill Elliott led all but one lap – Dale Earnhardt got credit for leading lap 40 on pit road – and went on to win by more than two seconds.

The inaugural The Winston drew 110,000 fans at Charlotte. Only 18,500 attended at Atlanta.

There was a good reason why. The Atlanta race was held on Mother’s Day. NASCAR never raced on that day and still doesn’t.

It’s one thing to take dad to a race. It’s quite another to take mom. Take her to brunch.

The race returned to Charlotte the next year and has been held at the track ever since. There’s no longer any talk of moving it.

Over the years there have been multiple format changes and entry requirements.

They, among other things,have helped make the race better and bigger than could have been imagined in 1985.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.