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.
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