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WAID’S WORLD: The Wild Finish, And Aftermath, Of The 1989 All Star Race

Since its debut as The Winston in 1985, the All Star Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Race has had more than its share of dramatic, exciting moments.

That first event, for example, was not without controversy. Driving for Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip won it only to have his engine blow up in a plume of smoke just as he crossed the finish line.

“Wow! Darrell just made it!” many said.

Others weren’t so sure.

The conspiracy theorists claimed that Waltrip deliberately caused his engine failure by mashing the clutch as soon as he took the checkered flag.

Why? Because, they said, Johnson had provided him with an overpowering, oversized engine. If that power plant happened to be intact during post-race inspection there would be hell to pay.

NASCAR would surely lower the boom on Waltrip and Johnson, perhaps, it was conjectured, even take the victory away from them.

To be sure, that was something NASCAR seldom did. But The Winston wasn’t a points-paying race so the sanctioning body could make up new rules.

So to avoid taking a risk Waltrip followed orders and killed the engine.

The conspiracy theorists were never proven correct. Perhaps the diabolical plan was carried out – after all, Johnson was not one to shy away from, shall we say, “pushing the envelope.”

However, no foul was called and Waltrip has gone down in NASCAR lore as the winner of the inaugural The Winston.

 There have been several such races over the years – such as the now infamous “Pass In The Grass” that characterized Dale Earnhardt’s victory in 1987- and they continued after the event was first run under the lights in 1992.

However, there is an event that remains one of the most controversial and incident-filled in the history of the All Star race.

But it hasn’t gotten as much notoriety as many others, at least in one man’s opinion.

In 1989 Waltrip was in his third year with team owner Rick Hendrick after a six-year tenure with Johnson during which he won three championships.

Their parting wasn’t exactly amicable.

“I am leaving an old nag for a thoroughbred,” Waltrip declared.

“I got rid of a jackass,” Johnson responded.

That season’s The Winston was divided into three segments (this type of “restructuring” goes on to this day), the last of which would be a 10-lap “shootout.”

Waltrip and rival Rusty Wallace, then with Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max team, won the first two segments. Thus they lined up side-by-side on the front row for the start of the “shootout.”

As the white flag approached, Wallace crept up on Waltrip’s rear bumper as they sped into the fourth turn.

Then, as Wallace dove under Waltrip, he clipped his rival’s rear bumper and sent him into a spin.

Once he recovered, NASCAR ruled that Waltrip should go to the rear of the field and took one lap off the scoreboard.

This seemed to be contrary to the rules established for the “shootout.” Dirt track legislation was in force, which meant that the cars would restart in the order they ran prior to a caution flag.

Waltrip contended that he should be the leader since Wallace spun him out deliberately and brought out the yellow flag.

“There would be no caution if he had not spun me out,” Waltrip said.

NASCAR disagreed. Waltrip restarted at the rear of the field.

As the final two laps were run and Wallace took the checkered flag, loud jeers and boos were heard from the crowd of about 85,000. Beer and soda cans – empty and full – were hurled onto the track, all aimed at Wallace.

Soon after the race members of Waltrip’s and Wallace’s crews got into a pushing, scuffling melee in the garage area that could have gotten very ugly had not cooler heads prevailed.

“He drove into me and spun me out. It was pretty flagrant,” Waltrip said. “I hope he chokes on that $200,000 (winner’s share).”

 “I would be crazy just to drive up on the rear of somebody and just spin him out in front of God and everybody,” Wallace said.

But a lot of fans felt that was exactly what Wallace did. He heard the criticism, boos and catcalls for weeks. He felt he was losing what fan base he had.

“And man, I’m not sure I’m ever going to get it back,” he confided to a media friend.

The race had two significant aftermaths.

Wallace went on to win the 1989 championship, the only one of his career, and that helped soothe fans’ anger. In fact, nearly all of it subsided by the end of the season.

As for Waltrip, throughout his career he had not been spared fan derision. As a young competitor he was brash, belligerent and witty as he challenged, and often beat, the stars of the day. All of which earned him disdain.

But he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1989 after nearly 20 years of trying. That, along with The Winston in which fans thought he had been victimized, put him into a new light.

His past was shoved aside as many began to see him as not only a talented driver, but as a veteran who could assume the role of statesman.

He was named NASCAR’s Most Popular driver in 1989 and again in 1990.

 As time went by Waltrip’s reputation as a mouthy upstart faded away.

And he did, indeed, become an elder statesman for NASCAR.

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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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.

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WAID’S WORLD: A Few Drivers Dominated Bristol In The Past – And For Good Reason

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Bristol Motor Speedway was a sleepy little half-mile track at which you could buy a ticket on the day of the race.

It was pretty much the same at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. However, Bristol was different.

It was a high-banked track, which separated it from all other short tracks. Forty years ago its turns were banked at 36 degrees, larger than any other NASCAR facility.

Speeds at Bristol were easily the fastest of any short track. That was the track’s selling point – it has been so for years – but still, filling the grandstands was no easy matter and was seldom accomplished.

It was a simpler time. Communications technology was in its infancy. Television didn’t care much about NASCAR. Track PR personnel had to work long and diligently to lure the press and fans.

And, too, Bristol was not the behemoth it is today. Its two concrete grandstands could accommodate maybe 40,000 fans – far fewer than the reported 160,000 of today.

There were only a couple of VIP booths and the press box was miniscule. Can’t say the same of any of today’s tracks.

Bristol had its loyal followers and I daresay it does today. There just weren’t as many of them.

As enamored as they were of Bristol races and the incredible speeds therein, there was a time when loyal fans began to grouse and mull the notion of not coming back.

I have always reasoned there was a good reason for that.

They began to tire of seeing the same winner – race after race, year after year.

Over a period of more than a decade a small handful – make that very small – dominated Bristol races. They won so often that if indeed a different driver earned a victory it was considered a major upset, or, perhaps, a matter of luck.

Bristol ran its first race in 1961 and just three years later the single team dominance began. The vaunted Holman-Moody organization won eight races from 1964-71 with drivers Fred Lorenzen, Dick Hutcherson and David Pearson.

That changed in 1972. Bobby Allison swept both Bristol races amid a short-track war he waged with Richard Petty, also a multiple Bristol winner.

Cale Yarborough replaced Allison in 1973 and he picked up where his predecessor left off. He won once at Bristol that year and then, remarkably, compiled seven more wins in 12 races, including a streak of four in a row in 1976-77.

Perhaps Yarborough’s dominance was no more obvious than in the Southeastern 500 in April of 1977.

Yarborough won by an astonishing seven laps. It wasn’t the largest margin of victory in NASCAR history, but it was enough to put the crowd – announced at 30,000 – to sleep.

The guys in the press box were through filing their stories before Yarborough’s team had loaded up and departed. After all, there wasn’t much to say.

The best quote of the race came from Dick Brooks, the distant runnerup.

“The only way I could have beaten Cale,” he said, “was to have someone in the pits shoot out his tires.”

Yarborough’s last Bristol victory came in 1980. A year later another driver began his dominance at the track with a sweep of the 1981 events. His name was Darrell Waltrip.

Incredibly, counting ’81, Waltrip won seven consecutive races at Bristol. Terry Labonte broke his string in 1984.

Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip all had one thing in common, one thing that served as the catalyst for nearly all their Bristol victories.

They drove for Junior Johnson.

Johnson was easily the top team owner at Bristol – and at nearly all of the short tracks, for that matter.

His cars, mostly Chevrolets, were so strong on the short tracks that they were expected to win. They did with such regularity that sometimes boredom set in.

Johnson was never one to obey by the rules – well, perhaps it is better to say he never strictly obeyed them. Nearly everyone believed he had more than one trick up his sleeve when it came to short-track racing.

Maybe he did. But he was never caught. His cars routinely passed pre and post-race inspection.

Waltrip is Bristol’s all-time winner with 12 victories, 10 of which came with Johnson. All of Yarborough’s nine wins were in Johnson’s cars. Allison’s sweep in 1972 – two of his four wins – were accomplished in Johnson’s Chevrolets.

Johnson tops Bristol’s list of winning team owners with 16, but in reality, he has five more as a partner with Charlotte Motor Speedway President Richard Howard.

Howard may have been the designated team owner, but he had nothing to do with the construction and preparation of the cars.

That was all Johnson. And it is one reason he is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.

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.