Categories
Commentary

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.

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

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.

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: If Kyle Busch Is A Villain, There’s Nothing Wrong With That

There has been much talk about Kyle Busch ever since his petulant behavior following his close loss in the Coca-Cola 600.

If you didn’t see what happened via television or social media (I’m betting you did) here’s a quick summary: Looking decidedly upset, or frustrated, Busch fidgeted at the microphone, mumbled “congratulations” (that’s what I thought I heard), then dropped the mike and walked away.

He acted like an unhappy child.

Naturally he was taken to task by the fans, media and some fellow competitors like Brad Keselowski. I’m pretty sure he’s not No. 1 on many folks’ hit parade.

However, I agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr. who suggested Busch remain himself and not change just to gain redemption.

I am not suggesting Busch throw temper tantrums. But if he can’t help himself because of his competitive personality, well, he can have at it.

To me, there is a good reason for this:

NASCAR needs a villain. It needs a competitor whose personality, sassy mouth, razor-thin temper or undisciplined driving style draws the ire of the fans.

They band together in their dislike for him and – this is important – follow his every move at every race. He brings attention to NASCAR that goes beyond its fans. Believe me, that is something the sanctioning body needs right now.

Villains have been part of NASCAR since it’s founding. Today some of them rank among the greatest stock car drivers in history and are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

The legendary Curtis Turner showed a car no mercy. He didn’t know much about finesse. Consequently, when it came to his rivals on the track if he could not pass them he would just as soon run over them.

That’s not a good way to attract friends but Turner did not care.

In the 1970s the undisputed villain was Darrell Waltrip. He worked at it. When he came into the sport he knew there were only two ways to gain attention: Win and be a smart aleck.

Because of his quick wit Waltrip was a media darling. But many fans thought he was just too cocky and too “mouthy.”

It’s fair to say many competitors thought the same.

In one of his many feuds Waltrip fell at odds with Cale Yarborough. The two were swept up in a multicar accident in the 1977 Southern 500 at Darlington.

Driver D.K. Ulrich, involved in the incident, asked Yarborough why he hit him.

“I didn’t hit you,” Yarborough answered. “Ol’ Jaws hit you. He knocked you into the wall. It was uncalled for.”

Waltrip was known as “Jaws” for the rest of his career.

A couple of weeks later Yarborough won at Martinsville on a hot, humid day.

Exhausted, Yarborough declared the race, at 500 laps, was too long and needed to be cut.

“I will not shorten my races,” track owner H. Clay Earles heatedly said.

Waltrip pounced. He emerged the winner a week later at North Wilkesboro, another half-mile track.

In victory lane he pronounced the presence of the “Cale Scale,” an imaginary device that measured a race’s degree of difficulty

“This race was only a one and a half or two,” Waltrip said. “I wish we had another 100 laps. I guess Cale is getting too old.”

And so it went. Waltrip continued to toss barbs and fans continued to dislike him. When he was introduced there were plenty of boos.

Dale Earnhardt was a sensation at the start of his career but soon after his overly aggressive driving style became the target of competitor and fan criticism.

Earnhardt didn’t seem to care.

He got the nickname “The Intimidator.”

 For many it was not a term of respect.

Much later the seemingly unprofessional, body-slam style of Ernie Irvan raised the ire of competitors and fans, who named him “Swervin’ Irvan.”

He even apologized for his mistakes in a drivers meeting at Talladega.

It took so long for Rusty Wallace to regain the fans’ favor after his victory in the 1989 The Winston, in which he spun Waltrip on the last lap. He wondered if all he would hear for the rest of his career was irate booing.

Do you really have to be reminded about Tony Stewart? He flunked Anger Management 101. To my knowledge he is the only driver in NASCAR history to be fined by his sponsor for misbehavior.

Kyle’s brother Kurt was known for his surliness and short temper as much as his driving skill.

There are others, of course, but here is the point: These drivers polarized fans, but at the same time, they enhanced their enjoyment of the sport if for no other reason than to see if they would get their comeuppance.

They were the subjects of much attention, week in and week out. Their outbursts, behavior or on-track shenanigans made headlines. The rivalries they established made fans argue among themselves – but at the same time it kept them riveted to all that was going on.

And you don’t have to be told how much the media delighted in it all.

Villainy aside, it must be pointed out that all of the drivers mentioned were winners and several were champions. That means that it didn’t matter how much they antagonized competitors and fans, they could back it up with accomplishments.

Kyle Busch already has achieved much. His skills are obvious and many admire him for them.But to many that doesn’t matter. He’s their man to dislike – so far.

I believe that comes from Busch being himself. He may change. That is certainly his right and perfectly acceptable.

But if he remains the Kyle Bush he is he will likely fulfill the role NASCAR desperately needs: the villain.

And there is not a thing wrong with that.

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.

Categories
Uncategorized

Alternate Reality: Chase for the Winston Cup

By Matt Weaver (MIAMI) — Imagine for a moment an alternate reality where the Chase for the Championship was introduced at the beginning of the Modern Era in 1972 and utilized the elimination format right from the start.

Who would have been the stars of the Chase for the Winston Cup championship in this parallel universe and would the stars of that era have enjoyed competing under the high-pressure format that has produced compelling action both on and off the track?

Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte — three Hall of Fame champions from the 1980s and 1990s enjoyed a lot of success under the full-season campaign that the sport once utilized but all expressed a desire to have raced under the current format.

Wallace won 50 times in Sprint Cup competition but scored only one championship back in 1989. He believes that his propensity for winning multiple races each season would have translated to multiple championships if the Chase Grid were around during the course of his 25-year career.

“If they had this format when I was racing, I would have won three championships with the amount of wins we had during my career,” Wallace said on Friday at Homestead Miami Speedway. “I feel like we would have been able to advance even if we had some bad luck during some of the rounds.

“Because of that, I like this format a lot.”

Dale Jarrett won 32 races and the 1999 Cup Series championship. He doesn’t know how a Chase would have affected his battles with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte but he wishes he had the opportunity to find out.

“I would have loved to have been a part of it,” Jarrett said. “All your champions would tell you that one of the reasons why they are champions is how they performed while under pressure. I think we’re seeing that this year. I get amped up just doing the broadcasts so I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to participate in the Chase.”

Labonte concurred.

“I don’t know how many times we finished in the top 10 in points over the years, but it was several times and normally you had to be real consistent to be in the championship,” Labonte said. “The way it is today, you still have to be consistent but if you win the races you naturally get to advance.

“I think it brings some excitement to it for sure and a lot more pressure also. It’s definitely kind of interesting to watch, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. It’s definitely different and puts a lot of teams under a lot of pressure.”

Certainly Gordon, Earnhardt and Bill Elliott would have won championships under the format but perhaps Mark Martin with his legendary consistency and 40 wins would have also made several Championship Fours and have won a crown. Imagine the Winston Cup garage rolling into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the season-ending event with Earnhardt, Gordon, Martin and Elliott all having an equal shot at the Winston Cup Championship.

The action on the track and off would have been legendary.

Jarrett believes Labonte would have made countless number of Championship Four appearances and likely would have won more than just his 1984 and 1996 championships too. He compared Labonte and his consistency to the way that Ryan Newman advanced his way into the championship race this season, adding credence to the format in the process.

“I think a guy like Terry Labonte could have won even more championships because he was always winning but he was consistent too,” Jarrett said. “As a result of both of those elements, he would have put him in the championship hunt all the time too.”

With that said, Elliott believes the same drivers that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s would have won out under the new format.

“If you’re saying we were going to run the Chase like they have now with the eliminations, I really believe the same guys would win the championships,” Elliott said. “I think you would see guys end up with a different number of  championships but I don’t think it would have made us drive differently. We all raced very hard back then and we just raced whatever system they gave us. From my perspective, I raced to win and let the points take care of themselves.”

Jarrett believes a format like the Chase Grid is timeless and would have worked regardless of the roster or decade.

“Look even further back to guys like Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and how they would have responded to this format,” Jarrett said. “The thought is just incredible. This would have fit in many different eras in my opinion.”

Go ahead and toss Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Joe Weatherly in there too. The possibilities are endless and the results would have been priceless.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Rusty Wallace: I’ve Done Everything that Keselowski Has

By Matt Weaver (HOMESTEAD, Fla.) — There are multiple similarities between @RustyWallace and Brad @Keselowski and the comparisons go far beyond the fact that both champions have driven the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford for Team Penske.

Or at least that’s what Wallace, the 1989 Sprint Cup champion, says he believed in explaining his thoughts about his controversial successor and 2012 Cup titlist.

Keselowski has been at the center of controversy in recent weeks, getting involved in high profile off-track scuffles with veterans like Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. At the center of the conflict is that notion that Keselowski has overstepped his bounds as a sub-30-year-old driver, especially in the eyes of the aforementioned veteran drivers.

For his part, Keselowski believes that the vets see him as a threat to the status quo and are continually attempting to alter his personality as a result. Wallace was a thorn in the side to veterans like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt back in his day and believes that Keselowski is struggling to find a balance between finding allies and finding success.

“Being popular in the garage is one thing but it doesn’t make you a lot of money,” Wallace said on Friday afternoon at Homestead Miami Speedway. “Going out there and winning races makes you a lot of money. It makes you popular amongst the fans…

“Everyone wants to be popular but everyone wants to be a winner too so it’s a tradeoff — I get that.”

Wallace says he has spent a lot of time studying the film on Keselowski’s recent run-ins because he is still invested in the success of his former team and car. Much like the rest of the garage, Wallace says he has no qualms with how Keselowski conducts himself on the track, but it is his actions off the track that has earned him the ire of his peers.

“I talked to (Brad) last week at Phoenix and I told him that a lot people felt like he hadn’t paid his dues,” Wallace said. “I said, you’re a young guy who has bulldozed in here like a hot shot, with a big time car owner, and you’ve won races and been real boisterous about what you would change in the sport and how you would do this or how you would do that.

“You became a self-proclaimed voice of the garage and that has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

As a veteran, Wallace said he wanted to make it specifically clear to Keselowski why his rivals were frustrated with him. Above all else, he wanted to make sure that Keselowski understood that he could relate because he too experienced it several years ago.

“He’s young, aggressive and cocky,” Wallace said. “I was too. I’ve done everything that he’s done. I just wanted to win and thank God I took that approach.”