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.
“I’ve seen this car … pop up for the last 15 years,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been to Monterey, it’s been raced as a vintage racer for many, many years. It’s been to Goodwood (Festival of Speed) twice. I’ve seen this car over and over and over. I’ve never seen it in person. I’ve always wondered is it the real car? They’re claiming it’s the real car, but how do you know?
“Obviously, the car came up for sale recently at Barrett Jackson. I’m getting all kinds of text messages from everybody, even my sister (Kelley). Talking about, ‘Man, you seen this car?’ …
Earnhardt explained his attachment to the car was due in part to where it was constructed.
“This one in particular is important because it was built in the shop next to (his grandmother’s) house,” he said. “This was before (Dale Earnhardt Inc). … I would beg dad to take me (to the shop).”
Earnhardt’s detective work began with a relative, Robert Gee Jr., an uncle on his mother’s side of the family who worked on the No. 8 car.
“Robert Gee Jr. had verified that this car was legit,” Earnhardt said. “This car was brought up to Robert Gee Jr. to be looked at (in the late 90s). And the reason they would bring it to him is because he put the body on the car. He did several things on the car and would go to the race track with the team as well. I’ve got him at the race track in a photo with the rest of the team standing next to this car. Robert Gee Jr., who works here at JR Motorsports, has worked on this car, put the body on it.”
When Earnhardt asked him if the car was the real deal, Gee said, “Yep, it is. I’m pretty confident this is the car.”
“Well, this car is probably going to go for $150,000,” Earnhardt said. “Are you $150,000 confident that this is the car?’
Gee was “pretty sure.”
Gee explained that when he first verified the car in the late 90s it was via the car’s drive shaft hoop.
Also of note: who had made the hoop.
“He watched my dad make that hoop,” Earnhardt said. “It’s unique because my dad made it and the way it was made. The way dad chose to make it, he heated it up with an acetylene torch and wrapped this thing around an oxygen tank, which is quite dangerous, and made it himself right there in front of Robert in the shop.”
It wasn’t enough for Earnhardt.
“He couldn’t give me enough confirmation to make me completely sure that this was the real car,” Earnhardt said. “I got some encouragement from within my family that I should purchase this car. I called Tony (Eury) Sr. and talked to him about it.”
Then Earnhardt “swung for the fences.”
He called his former owner Rick Hendrick, who was at the auction.
“I said ‘I got one I need you to get for me if you can and he goes, ‘Sure.’ It’s probably going to go for ($150,000). If it’s under ($200,000), try to stay in the fight.”
$190,000 later, the car was his. It eventually arrived at Earnhardt’s home and was unloaded.
“I have been climbing all over this car, alright? Trying to find some identification,” Earnhardt said. “Something, anything, that would make me feel confident 100% that this was the car.”
He first looked at the floorboard of the car. His father often beat the floorboard of cars with a ball peen hammer to get his seat low.
“You can see the ball peen hammer marks in the bottom of the car,” Earnhardt said. “It’s obviously been hammered down a ton, all the way across the back to get his back of the seat lower.”
But it still wasn’t enough confirmation.
“Somebody else could have beat their seat down,” he said. “It’s a very Earnhardt thing. But I can’t find another picture of the car from 1986 of the bottom showing this exact same hammer marks. That doesn’t do it for me.
“I’m the one who has spent the money, I need more.”
Earnhardt turned to his phone, which has thousands of photos of his father’s career.
“There’s a couple photos of me that I’ve collected as well and there’s one of me in 1986,” Earnhardt said. “I’m sitting in the car … That gives me a view of the driver’s window. Some of the interior of the car, as far as the rear sheet metal in the back interior of the car, the roll cage. One of the things I look at in this photo is how they hooked up the widow net at the top of the window. Back then, everybody would have done that differently. When you put the body on, you made that yourself, how you were going to hook up the window net. So when you see those mounts, they’re unique to the car. I would look at those mounts and go, ‘That’s exactly like the mounts on my car.’ That’s a pretty good confirmation, but … that’s 99% maybe, or 95% sure this is the car.”
But Earnhardt found another photo from the same day of him sitting in the car taken from the passenger window.
“I can see the seat, the seat belts, the steering wheel, the steering shaft, the dashboard,” Earnhardt said. “If you draw in, look closely, above the steering shaft there is a radio box. It’s riveted to a roll bar with two rivets and then to a piece of sheet metal by two rivets as well. If you look, it’s kind of cocked counter-clockwise just slightly. It’s not level with the roll cage or the car. So I go into the car quickly with my camera. … I dive into that car with my camera, alright? I take a picture of the car today. There’s the rivet holes and they’re off angle. That’s it.
“I don’t need anything else. That to me locks it down that I’m holding the real thing.”
Earnhardt ran up to his house to tell his wife, Amy, the news.
“I was almost in tears getting that type of confirmation that I have the car,” Earnhardt said. “I was calling my sister, I was calling Rick. I called Robert Jr. I texted Tony Sr. I’m telling everyone, ‘I got it. I got what I needed.”
Now here is a picture of the car today. There are the rivet holes that held that radio box in 33 years ago. In the time since, someone has mounted a lower window next rod in this area. (that will soon be removed. the original window net mounts are still there and will be used) pic.twitter.com/bPGZrayPfW
Here is the left side floor board. That’s the LR trailing arm (black). Dad used a simple ball peen hammer to “move” the floorboard down so he could sit lower. I remember seeing him do this myself to cars. pic.twitter.com/LfSVd5FB4M
Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.
Then there are drivers such as NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54 and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.
“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”
He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.
Now, the 77-year-old Gant officially is retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre ranch in Taylorsville, North Carolina, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.
He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.
“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”
Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”
STILL A FAN FAVORITE
Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has attended only two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late September when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.
One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.
It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats who attended and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he never had left.
Yet Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.
“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.
“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”
Gant’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, brought back the old gang together in this tweet last year from Darlington:
SHORT-TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP
While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short-track driver first and foremost.
Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984 and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).
He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.
“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.
“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).
“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”
TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES
Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.
“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t had enough time to get a fan base. That’s what I think right now the problem today is the fan base for the new guys coming in to race.
“The other part of the problem is you have young guys that aren’t really car guys. Like me, I have always been into cars from the age of 18 or 19 years old, racing short tracks, dirt cars, sprint cars, all them things. I think the young people now don’t really associate with the young people that race, and the models of cars don’t matter to a lot of them.”
Gant still likes NASCAR racing but readily admits, “It’s just a lot of difference. Unless you were there, you can’t really pinpoint everything. Everything is more business-like today than it was.
“And the cars are so much different, looking at it on television. The cars are so much lower. I did not like running with restrictor plates that came out the last few years I raced. It puts you in a box, just like it is now. All the cars are the same in horsepower and the bodies are all the same.
“Back when I was racing, I liked the way it was. We had a stock car. We’d go to Daytona, and it’d be a Monte Carlo, Pontiac, Chevrolet or whatever was running.”
GANT REFLECTS ON HIS TOP CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
Of his career, Gant said there were two high points that stand out to him, both markedly different from each other. First was in the Modified Series, while the other was in the Cup Series.
“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he said. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona, and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”
As for his Cup tenure, it was winning four Cup races in a row in September 1991, along with two Busch Series wins in the same month. He earned his other famous nickname as a result; “Mr. September.”
“I felt like we couldn’t be beat,” he said. “We were coming up on the end of the year, and I could not wait to start the next season then.”
SOON TO BE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Gant once again is preparing to take part in the 23rd Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which starts May 13 in Portland, Oregon, and finishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 19. Gant has been part of the Charity Ride each of the previous 22 years.
“We’ve been just about everywhere you can go,” Gant said.
But Gant will be far from the oldest driver on the Ride. Fellow former NASCAR racer Hershel McGriff will take part again in at least one or two segments of the Ride at the age of 89. McGriff competed in a short track race in California as recently as five years ago at the age of 84.
Harry Phil Gant — also known as “Handsome Harry” and “Mr. September” –Age: 74 –Home: Taylorsville, North Carolina –NASCAR Cup stats: 474 starts, 18 wins, 123 top fives, 208 top 10s, 17 poles. –NASCAR Xfinity stats: 128 starts, 21 wins, 52 top fives, 71 top 10s, 14 poles. –NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: 11 starts in 1996, four top 10s. –Notable: Holds record as the oldest driver ever to win a Cup Series race (52 years, 219 days) and as the oldest driver ever to earn his first career Cup win (42 years and 105 days).
One of the best elements of the Daytona 500 is how unexpected drivers – some may call them underdogs – can emerge to win the “Great American Race.”
Over the last half-century, several unexpected drivers went on to win the 500, including Pete Hamilton (1970), Geoffrey Bodine (1986), Derrike Cope (1990), Ernie Irvan (1991), Sterling Marlin (1994-95), Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003), Ward Burton (2002) and one of the biggest underdogs to ever win the race, Trevor Bayne (2011).
Heading into Sunday’s 59th edition of the Daytona 500, two drivers stand out as underdogs: Canadian driver D.J. Kennington and Corey LaJoie.
Kennington, 39, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will be making his second career NASCAR Cup start Sunday. His previous start was last fall at Phoenix (finished 35th).
The 25-year-old LaJoie, son of former Xfinity Series champ Randy LaJoie, will be making his third career start in the NASCAR Cup Series. His other two starts came in the fall of 2014 (41st at New Hampshire and 35th at Charlotte).
Kennington may be relatively new to the Cup series, but he’s a veteran of CASCAR, NASCAR’s Pinty’s Canadian Series (108 starts, eight wins), the Xfinity Series (50 starts) and the Camping World Truck Series (five starts).
Don’t be surprised if Kennington is a bit wide-eyed and awestruck heading into Sunday’s race.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Kennington, who is driving for Gaunt Brothers Racing. “I can’t explain it really. Coming off of four (of Thursday’s Duel), I wasn’t in the race. When we crossed the line, I was, so just an unbelievable feeling for us.”
Kennington’s achievement is made all the more outstanding given he wasn’t able to practice prior to Thursday’s Duels.
“Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning, I tell you,” he said. “At the end we made it in. That’s huge for us.
“The hard part is over. We’re going to have some fun now.”
Kennington is not only racing for himself and his team, he’ll also be racing for his country.
“There’s only been eight of us Canadians that have made the 500, so that’s huge for us,” he said
As for LaJoie, he qualified for BK Racing even though he was involved in a late crash with Reed Sorenson in the first of Thursday’s two Can-Am Duel races.
“Every kid in a race car dreams of racing in a Daytona 500, and I get to do that on Sunday,” LaJoie said.
He gets to race against his idols in the sport’s biggest race.
“Man, you come here idolizing Jimmie (Johnson), Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., all of these guys,” LaJoie said. “I’m fans of all of these guys and I get to race all of them on Sunday. It’s amazing. The big man has got a plan. I’m excited to get up there and dice it up.
“It’s been a hard road and I’ve still got a long way to go, but it starts Sunday.”