Bobby Isaac

May 4 in NASCAR: A ghost that could not be caught at Talladega

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It is among NASCAR’s most famous cars and added to its legacy on this day in 1980.

As Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt ran at the front at Talladega Superspeedway, they pitted together. Earnhardt’s team took two tires. Baker’s team took four tires. The difference left Baker nearly 20 seconds behind Earnhardt.

But Baker, the 1980 Daytona 500 winner, was driving the “Gray Ghost” at Talladega.

The car was nicknamed the “Gray Ghost’’ because its colors allowed it to blend in with the track, as the story goes. Driver complaints led NASCAR to have Baker’s team put reflective decals on the car so it was easier to see after that Daytona 500 win

“Silver and black. Chrome numbers. It doesn’t get any cooler than that,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in 2016 on his Dale Jr. Download.

Baker’s charge at Talladega 40 years ago also was memorable for catching and then passing Earnhardt for the lead with three laps to go. Baker withstood Eanhardt’s final charge at the line to win by 3 feet.

Baker told Motor Racing Network in Victory Lane: “We had to earn this one.”

Also on this date:

1957: Fireball Roberts won at Shelby, North Carolina, for his fifth win in his first 13 starts of the season. Roberts went on to score eight victories that season.

1969: Bobby Isaac started from the pole and led 283 of 300 laps to win at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. No other car finished on the lead lap. The victory was one of a career-high 17 wins he had that season.

1997: Mark Martin won at Sonoma Raceway, holding off Jeff Gordon on the final lap. Martin snapped a 42-race winless streak.

2002: Tony Stewart came from the rear after an engine change to win at Richmond Raceway.

April 10 in NASCAR: Bill Elliott gets spun late, wins at Bristol

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One thing stands out among the 44 Cup Series wins that Bill Elliott earned in his career.

The 1988 champion made a name for himself dominating on superspeedways and other tracks 1 mile and longer, but he only won twice on short tracks.

The first came in dramatic fashion early in his championship season in the Valleydale Meats 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

After starting 13th, Elliott took the lead on Lap 379. He led the next 113 laps and along the way picked up a tail in the form of Geoffrey Bodine.

With nine laps to go, Bodine moved to Elliott’s inside as they entered Turn 3. Bodine’s No. 5 Chevrolet then nosed up into Elliott’s left-rear quarter panel, sending Elliott into a smokey spin.

The incident brought out the caution as Bodine took the lead.

During the caution, Elliott and the third-place car of Mark Martin took four new tires in the pits. Luckily for them, there were only three cars on the lead lap.

Elliott beat Martin off pit road and they lined up behind Bodine in the outside lane with as the race resumed with four laps to go.

Bodine’s lead would last just a lap-and-a-half. On his four new tires, Elliott eased his way underneath Bodine in Turns 1 and 2 with three laps to go. Bodine edged Elliott down the backstretch, but in Turn 3 and 4 Elliott bounced lightly off him, causing Bodine to get out of shape as Elliott took the lead and then the win.

“I didn’t have any doubt at all, I was going to get by him one way or the other,” Elliott told ESPN.

Elliott’s only other short-track win would come in 1992 at Richmond.

Also on this date:

1960: In his third career start at the track, Richard Petty won his first of 15 career Cup races at Martinsville Speedway, winning over Jimmy Massey and Glen Wood. It was his second of 200 career wins.

1971: Bobby Isaac led 181 of 200 laps to win in his fourth straight start at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. Isaac did it in front of roughly 8,500 fans in attendance and an audience watching on ABC, which aired it live flag-to-flag, eight years before the 1979 Daytona 500.

1980 – Kasey Kahne, future 18-time Cup winner, was born

2010Ryan Newman ended a 77-race winless streak with a victory at Phoenix Raceway over Jeff Gordon. It was his first victory with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first victory since the 2008 Daytona 500.

April 9 in NASCAR: Mark Martin gives Xfinity win to David Green

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The 1994 Goody’s 250 was in the bag for Mark Martin.

A caution had come out for an incident with five laps left in the April 9 Xfinity (Busch) Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a result of an incident between Hermie Sadler and Robert Pressley.

Martin, trying to win from the pole, was the leader over series regular David Green, driver for Bobby Labonte Racing.

“I kept telling myself the last 20 laps, ‘Please Lord, let there not be a caution,'” Green told ESPN later. “Dang caution flew and I said, ‘Dang, we’re going to finish second.'”

Four laps later, Martin led the field across the start-finish line.

That’s when problems began for Martin.

“I don’t look at the flagman that often,” Green said in the following week’s issue of Winston Cup Scene. “But I happened to look at him this time.”

What Green saw was the white and yellow flag waving. There was one lap left.

But Martin, who had just led his 195th lap in the 250-lap event, thought the race was over.

His confusion was aided when third-place driver Tommy Houston pulled up beside his car to congratulate him.

As the field went through Turns 3-4, Martin pulled his No. 60 Winn-Dixie Ford onto the apron and drove to the garage and an intended destination of Victory Lane.

“I can’t believe anybody else would be that stupid,” Martin joked to ESPN afterward. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever done, there’s nothing else I can say. I thought the race was over.”

The rest of the field, with Green leading it, stayed on the track and took the checkered flag.

To be on the safe side, Green stayed on the track for one more lap to ensure he’d won his second career Xfinity race. Martin finished 11th.

“I hate it for (Martin),” Green said according to Winston Cup Scene. “But we’ve had a real good car the last three races and have been there with a chance to win a race, only to have cautions kill us. I guess it was just our day today.”

While it was his only win of the year, Green went on to claim the 1994 Xfinity championship.

Also on this date:

1961: Fred Lorenzen earned his first of 26 career Cup Series wins in a rain-shortened race at Martinsville Speedway, with only 149 of 500 laps completed. He won twice in his first five starts for Holman-Moody Racing.

1972: Bobby Allison led 445 of 500 laps and won at Bristol, beating Bobby Isaac by four laps.

1978: With a backup engine under the hood and after a spin on Lap 170, Benny Parsons went to victory lane over Darrell Waltrip at Darlington.

1989: Battling the flu, Rusty Wallace passed Greg Sacks with 63 laps to go and then beat Darrell Waltrip by .26 seconds to win at Bristol. Wallace made it to the end of a race that saw a track-record 20 cautions that slowed it for 98 of 500 laps.

1995: Dale Earnhardt led 227 of 400 laps and beat Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for his fifth and final Cup victory at North Wilkesboro.

April 3 in NASCAR: Darrell Waltrip let it ‘all hang out’ for Darlington win

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There once was a time in NASCAR when no matter how bad the crash, drivers raced back to the finish line to take the caution flag.

It was during this time, on April 3, 1977, that Darrell Waltrip won in a crazy finish at Darlington Raceway.

There were seven laps left in the Dixie 500 on this day and Waltrip was in fourth behind David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

Allison was driving in relief of his brother Donnie and had managed to bring his No. 1 car back from being a lap down. And with seven laps to go, Allison passed Pearson for the lead on the backstretch.

That’s when chaos broke out exiting Turn 4 as J.D. McDuffie and Dick Brooks wrecked.

Debris from the wreck cut both ride-side tires on Allison’s car as Pearson backed off to avoid the carnage and Petty slowly navigated the mayhem.

Waltrip took the opposite approach and hammered the gas.

“I saw the wreck and knew it would take a long time to clean it up,” Waltrip said afterward according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.” “I let it all hang out running back to the caution. I knew it was my only chance to win.”

Waltrip’s No. 88 car went from fourth to first in half a straightaway as he narrowly beat Allison to the line to take the caution flag first and assume the lead.

Waltrip’s car narrowly beat Allison’s to the start-finish line. (YouTube)

The race never resumed and Waltrip took the checkered flag.

In victory lane, Waltrip was told by ABC that NASCAR was withholding its winner declaration until it could look at pictures of the finish.

“I got one right here and I know I’m right,” Waltrip told ABC as he pointed to his head. “I beat him to the line (by) well over a car length. I know I did.”

It wound up being Waltrip’s fourth Cup win and his first on a speedway.

Also on this date:

1960: The Cup Series held its last of four races, held over nine years, at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. John Rostek won in what was his second of six career starts. The race also featured Ron Hornaday Sr. in one of his 17 Cup Series starts. NASCAR’s premier series wouldn’t return to Arizona until the inaugural event held at Phoenix Raceway in 1988.

1966: David Pearson won a Cup race at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. It was the first of four races – including events at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, Greenville-Pickens (S.C) Speedway and Bowman Gray (N.C) Stadium – that were held over eight days that Pearson swept.

1969: Bobby Isaac won at Columbia (S.C) Speedway, the first of three races held over six days he swept.

2011: Kevin Harvick passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go to win at Martinsville.

Friday 5: Did driver quit NASCAR race to watch man walk on moon?

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As the celebration of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon 50 years ago takes place Saturday, the event puts a spotlight on NASCAR folklore.

And an independent driver named Henley Gray.

The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.

Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”

The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.

Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.

But there’s a problem.

“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”

Gray is 86 “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.

His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.

Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.

“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”

After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.

Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.

Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.

But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.

Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.

“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”

2. NASCAR is watching

Alex Bowman on the roof of his car after winning at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Twice in the last three weeks, victory celebrations featured drivers standing on the roof of their car. Alex Bowman did it after he scored his first Cup win three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Kurt Busch did it last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.  

Kurt Busch celebrates his Kentucky win atop his car’s roof. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.

Last week also saw five crew members ride on Kurt Busch’s winning car from the start/finish line after his celebration there. The moment was lauded on social media for how it resembled such celebrations decades ago. 

It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.

In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy. 

On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.

We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”

3. A new strategy

Since lightning stopped the Daytona race a couple of weeks ago and rain later finished it, some teams are taking a closer look at how they monitor weather.

Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.

While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.

Kurt Busch gave up the lead at Daytona under caution to pit when NASCAR announced that the restart would be on the next lap. Shortly after pitting, lightning struck 6.3 miles from the track and the race was stopped with Justin Haley in the lead. The race never resumed and Haley won.

“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”

Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”

Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.

4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity 

Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.

So, who can top them?

Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.

“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”

Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.

“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”

Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.

5. Sticky situation  

This marks the second of three consecutive weekends that a traction compound will be applied to a track surface. It was done last weekend at Kentucky, will be done this week at New Hampshire and also will be done at next week at Pocono.

Watkins Glen follows Pocono but the next oval after Pocono is Michigan. There are no plans at this time for Michigan to use the traction compound next month.