Alan Kulwicki

April 5 in NASCAR history: Jeff Gordon finally breaks through in Texas

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From its start, Texas Motor Speedway was a cruel mistress to Jeff Gordon.

After it opened in 1997, Gordon was involved in wrecks in the first four races at the 1.5-mile track, scoring DNFs in 1998 and 1999.

Then the track teased him.

In the 12 races held from 2001-08, Gordon earned five top 10s, including two runner-up finishes.

By the time 2009 rolled around, the man who had won everything the Cup Series had to offer had won everywhere but Texas and Homestead.

What better way to end an overall 47-race winless streak than winning in your 17th try at Texas?

That’s what Gordon did on April 5, as he started second and led 105 of 334 laps, including the last 28.

“You guys got me a win at Texas, I love you!” Gordon exclaimed to his team over his radio in the midst of performing burnouts on the front and backstretch.

“How ironic is this?” Gordon told Fox in Victory Lane. “We go on this (winless) streak and we end it here at Texas, a place that had eluded us for so long. … We’ve never had a car like this at Texas.”

The win was Gordon’s 10th and final victory with Steve Letarte as his crew chief. The No. 24 team wouldn’t win again in 2009 and 2010 or ever again at Texas with Gordon as the driver. The house that Eddie Gossage built would be the site of a couple low points for Gordon in the second half of his career.

Also on this date:

1953: Dick Passwater only led three laps in his 20 career Cup Series starts. Those three laps delivered him a win at the old Charlotte Speedway. Passwater came out on top after he assumed the lead from Pop McGinnis and held off Gober Sosebee for the victory. Passwater would only compete in 10 more races before returning home to Indianapolis. After his owner, Frank Arford, died while trying to qualifying for a race, Passwater made his last start in a self-owned car, finishing ninth in the Southern 500.

1964: Fred Lorenzen wins for the third straight time in the spring race at Atlanta in an event that saw only 10 of the race’s 39 cars finish.

1981: Richard Petty beats Bobby Allison to score his 15th career win at North Wilkesboro. It was Petty’s first win since 1969 without cousin Dale Inman as crew chief. Inman left after they won the Daytona 500 in February to work with Dale Earnhardt on Rod Osterland’s team.

1986: Morgan Shepherd leads 110 of 200 laps to win the Xfinity race at Bristol. It was his second straight win. Shepherd made 14 Xfinity starts in 1986. He had eight DNFs. In the six races he finished, he won four and placed second and eighth in the others.

1992: Alan Kulwicki wins his second straight Bristol race, leading 282 laps from the pole and beating Dale Jarrett and Ken Schrader. It was Kulwicki’s fourth career win and the first of two victories he would earn in his championship campaign. The win also snapped Bill Elliott’s four-race win streak.

1997: Mark Martin won the inaugural Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.

April 4 in NASCAR history: Rusty Wallace honors Alan Kulwicki after Bristol win

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On April 4, 1993, Rusty Wallace had a typical Rusty Wallace day on the high-banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Team Penske driver started from the pole and led 376 of 500 laps around the short track before winning over Dale Earnhardt and Kyle Petty. It was his fourth of nine career wins he’d earn at Bristol.

But what Wallace did right after taking the checkered flag was a reminder that it was not a typical weekend.

After his cool down lap, Wallace turned his No. 2 Pontiac around and drove the opposite way around the half-mile track. It was the “Polish Victory Lap,” the winning trademark of 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki.

On April 1, Kulwicki and three others were killed in a plane crash as they traveled to Tennessee for that weekend’s races.

A fellow Midwest native, Wallace had competed against Kulwicki in the American Speed Association before they arrived in NASCAR.

Wallace’s win came a year after Kulwicki claimed one of his two career Bristol wins.

In Victory Lane, Wallace barely mentioned his performance in the race, using the moment to highlight Kulwicki.

“It’s almost tearful, I tell you I wanted to win this race so bad,” Wallace told ESPN. “I was so mad when Alan got killed there. … When I took that thing, I looped that baby around, I did the Alan Kulwicki Victory Lap and I was so prideful.”

Also on this date:

1976: Cale Yarborough beat Richard Petty by a lap at North Wilkesboro. It could have been two laps if Yarborough didn’t have to pit to have a banner that blew off a camper removed from the front of his car.

1982: Dale Earnhardt ended a 39-race winless streak with a victory at Darlington. It was the first of his three wins in the No. 15 Ford owned by Bud Moore.

2004: Elliott Sadler eared his second Cup Series win in a side-by-side finish with Kasey Kahne at Texas Motor Speedway. Kahne had led 148 laps but was beat by .028 seconds.

April 1 in NASCAR history: Dale Earnhardt tames Bristol for 1st Cup win

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Dale Earnhardt wasn’t joking around on April Fool’s Day in 1979.

At the age of 27, the future seven-time Cup champion bested the likes of Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty to score his first career Cup Series win, in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt, driving the No. 2 car for Rod Osterlund, led 164 laps and the final 25 to get the win.

It was the first of two Cup wins for Osterlund’s team and it came in Earnhardt’s 16th career start.

“I’ll probably believe it in the morning,” Earnhardt said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era,” which says 26,000 were in attendance for the race. “This is a bigger thrill than my first ever racing victory. … It was against top caliber drivers. It wasn’t some dirt track back home.”

Earnhardt, who would be named Rookie of the Year in 1979, would go on to win the race again the next year and claim nine total Cup victories at Bristol. He’d win in consecutive Bristol starts three times in his career.

Also on this date:

1973: After a spirited mid-race battle between David Pearson and Cale Yarborough at Atlanta, Yarborough lost seven laps to the leaders due to heating problems. Pearson went on to win over Bobby Isaac by two laps for his second consecutive win. He’d win his next three starts.

1984: Darrell Waltrip scored his seventh straight win at Bristol Motor Speedway with a victory over Terry Labonte and Ron Bouchard. It was the eighth straight Bristol win for team owner Junior Johnson.

1990: Dale Earnhardt edges Mark Martin by a couple of car lengths to win at Darlington. On Lap 212, a multi-car wreck occurred that involved Neil Bonnett. Bonnett suffered injuries, including a concussion, that would keep him out of a Cup car until a 1993 race at Talladega.

1993: Just days after competing in a Cup race at Darlington, defending champion Alan Kulwicki was killed along with three others in a plane crash as they traveled to Bristol, Tennessee for that weekend’s race. Kulwicki was 38.

2007: Jimmie Johnson edged teammate Jeff Gordon by half a car length to win at Martinsville. It was Johnson’s third win in the first six races of the year.

Where Are They Now: Lake Speed still racing and ‘still bad to the bone’

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He may not have been born a Petty or Earnhardt, but there is one former NASCAR driver whose surname practically predestined his career path.

That person with the colorful moniker is Lake Speed.

“God’s got a sense of humor, that’s the first thing,” Speed laughed when asked about his unique surname in a recent call with NBC Sports. “Every time I make a new acquaintance, I have to explain that the name is real and that God gave it to me.

Lake Speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997. Credit: Darrell Ingham /Allsport

“My dad was one of seven Speed boys. There’s a lot of Speeds back from where we’re from. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse. Sometimes you get ridiculed if you’re not running good because you’ve got the last name of Speed, but on the other side it’s looked at as unique, and I think it’s kind of helped make me stand out a little bit in a crowd.”

While the last of his 402 career NASCAR Cup starts came in 1998 at the age of 50, the 72-year-old Speed is still chasing checkered flags and living up to his last name.

When asked if he’ll ever retire, Speed chuckled, “I haven’t been able to find that in the Bible anywhere. I enjoy what I do, I like people and helping people, the interaction and all that is perfect for me. I just don’t see stopping.”

Speed began racing go-karts in his native Mississippi at the age of 12 before eventually finding his way into NASCAR Cup.

“Some people know I was a big-time go-karter for years, had a career, business and raced all over the world with karts before I ever came to NASCAR,” Speed told NBC Sports.

Since leaving NASCAR, Speed has come full circle, returning to his karting roots in 2001 and has become one of the more successful and prolific karting racers in the country.

Future NASCAR Cup driver Lake Speed poses with one of his racing karts when he was 15 years old. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“After I left NASCAR, a former NASCAR safety official, Steve Peterson, was a go-karter for years and years,” Speed said. “He kept calling me and kept saying, ‘Lake, you’ve got to come out here to the kart track. I have a few cars and you can come out and play with us some.’

“I finally went out one day and I forgot how much fun this was. I told myself I’ve got to get me one of these. So I got a kart and started fooling around with one and eventually started racing again. I went big-time, messed around and won the national championship in karting road-racing in 2007. Between the karting, the real estate business and trying to raise a bunch of kids and grandkids, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Speed’s day job is as a commercial real estate broker, a career path he began back in his college days.

But racing has always been his first true love, particularly karting. Speed won the International Karting Federation national championship six times before he came to NASCAR in 1980, and was the first American to win the World Karting Championship at LeMans, France in 1978, defeating a number of other aspiring racers including future three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna.

He remained the only American to win the world karting title in any class until 14-year-old Florida native Logan Sargeant did so in 2015.

Speed could have gone in any number of directions as a racer, but former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to try NASCAR, finishing as runner-up to Jody Ridley as Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980.

Speed would go on to record 16 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes in his Cup career, with a career-best points finish of 10th in 1985.

Lake Speed, winner of the 1988 TranSouth 500. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

March 27 marked the 32nd anniversary of Speed’s only win of his Cup career, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag by nearly 19 seconds over Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

“It was more of a relief than anything,” said of winning. “I had really been close to winning a lot of races in my career up to that point and particularly that season, we had led (nearly) every race that season before that race.

“We had the whole field a lap down at one time (in another race) and still didn’t win the darn thing. So when I finally won at Darlington, it was like, ‘Gosh darn, finally, now we can finally get on with it.’

“That was great, but there were other highlight moments. I had cars that were more than capable of winning a race and had a mechanical failure, an accident or whatever that knocked you out.

“There were also the times we passed the heroes and we were always an underfunded and under-budgeted team. When you outran the big dogs, it didn’t matter whether we won the race or not, we took home a moral victory. We had a lot of moral victories. Only one was in the record books, but there was a whole lot more of them where we went home to the shop with our heads held high, knowing we had put the hurtin’ on ‘em.”

Speed still keeps up with NASCAR – and the fans still keep up with him.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am, this far out, that I still get multiple cards, letters, model cars every week,” he said. “I’m autographing stuff and sending it out every week. It makes me feel good and gives me the opportunity to share my faith with people. I got saved in 1983 and it made a giant change in my life. I feel God gave me this platform to use, so I try to use it to honor him.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ Yeah, I miss it. I miss probably the most working in the shop with the guys, trying to build a better race car to outrun everyone else. I really love that challenge.

“I never went to work. It was always a pleasure and joy to work with guys and build strong relationships. People that have never been on a team that was working seven days a week for a goal, it’s just a different scenario than a ho-hum job that you’re going to just to make a check.

“I lived that life most of my life and when I got retired from NASCAR, all of a sudden I was in an office by myself. It was a shock. It took me several years to get over it. It was a tough, tough change. Karting really was a salvation for me, to get me going again to have something to do and the interaction with people.”

Lake Speed darts around a kart track April 5, 2006. Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR.

Speed didn’t mind being an underdog during much of his Cup career. But the real heroes to him were those who helped him throughout that nearly two full decades of NASCAR racing.

“I can’t really emphasize enough how important the crew guys are and were,” he said. “The relationships we built, we worked hours and hours together doing things and trying to accomplish stuff.

“In our case, being underfunded, when we got out ahead a lick, it was amazing to see these guys light up and the pride. When you see guys work real hard and they accomplish something together, it’s amazing. I still bump into one of those guys at least once a month and it’s like seeing a brother or sister that you haven’t seen in a while.”

Speed faced a number of tough competitors in his career but also became close friends with several, including Bobby Hillin Jr. and Darrell Waltrip.

Speed still lives and works out of the same compound he bought in 1985 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His real estate office occupies part of his original race shop, while his karts have replaced the Cup cars that used to be worked on there as well.

Karting has helped keep Speed young. He enjoys mixing it up with drivers half or even two-thirds his age.

“Look at it this way: I started all this when I was about 12 years old and raced until I retired from NASCAR,” Speed said. “I sat around for two or three years until I got into karting and went right back to racing regularly again.

“It’s just something that’s been in my blood all along. I love working on ‘em, love the people, the camaraderie and the challenge. I always said that if I knew last year what I knew this year, I would have won all the races last year.”

Speed is also a big part of what has become somewhat of a seniors tour: vintage karting, which is composed mainly of drivers in their 50s and on up into their 80s.

“It’s like going to a high school reunion, but where everybody shows up with a go-kart, races, has a good time, tells a lot of stories and relives their childhood,” he said with a laugh. “It really is cool, it’s the greatest thing in the world. You go to a high school reunion and it’s kind of boring. This is not.”

When asked how successful he is in karts today, Speed laughed: “With the modern stuff, not so much. You’re racing against a bunch of guys whose average age is 22, there I’m kinda mid-pack.

“But with the vintage stuff, I’m still bad to the bone.”

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March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.