Rusty Wallace

March 26 in NASCAR History: Matt Kenseth turns Jeff Gordon, Gordon shoves back

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Bristol Motor Speedway is used to fireworks, and the Food City 500 on March 26, 2006, was no exception.

It began with five laps to go with Matt Kenseth leading Kurt Busch, winner of four of the last eight Bristol races.

Busch, in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford, got into Kenseth’s rear bumper, causing Kenseth to get wicked sideways and letting Busch rocket by as Kenseth fell to third in front of Jeff Gordon.

With two laps to go, Gordon got Kenseth loose exiting Turn 4 and passed him.

As they raced through Turns 1 and 2 on the last lap, Kenseth returned the favor and sent Gordon into a spin.

Meanwhile, Busch outran Kevin Harvick to the take the checkered flag.

During the cool-down lap, Kenseth showed his own displeasure by quickly driving up to Busch and veering toward him, but not making contact.

Then, as Busch performed snow angels on the frontstretch (it had snowed in the area that weekend), Gordon exited his car with his helmet still on, made a beeline for Kenseth and gave him a hard shove.

“Kenseth got shuffled out and you know, he’s holding guys up,” Gordon told Fox. “I got to him a couple times and showed my nose and he shut the door on me. The next time I got the opportunity I definitely moved him, but I didn’t wreck him. We went down into (Turn) 1 afterwards and he just wrecked me. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it and all that stuff, but I wasn’t happy about it and I showed it to him after the race. … That stuff rarely ever happens with him. I’m going to give back to him what he gives to me.”

Also on this date:

1955: Fonty Flock, driving a No. 14 car owned by Frank Christian, won a premier series race at Columbia Speedway in Cayce, South Carolina. Flock became the first driver to win a race for Chevrolet in NASCAR’s top series.

1961: Bob Burdick only made 15 Cup Series starts in his career, but he left an impression. At Atlanta this year, Burdick led 44 of 334 laps to score an upset win. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” he did so in an unsponsored Pontiac car on used tires and with an inexperienced crew in the pits. He beat Rex White and Ralph Earnhardt.

1972: After making up seven seconds in the last 30 laps, Bobby Allison beat A.J. Foyt by about five car lengths to win at Atlanta. Allison earned Chevrolet’s first win on a speedway since 1963. Allison raced for Junior Johnson, who won that 1963 race at Charlotte.

1995:  After 314 career Cup Series starts, Sterling Marlin earned his first win on a non-restrictor plate track with a victory at Darlington. His first two Cup wins were back-to-back in the Daytona 500 in 1994-95.

2000: Rusty Wallace claimed his eighth career win at Bristol, which also marked his 50th Cup Series win.

Dave Marcis on being friends with Dale Earnhardt and spinning him

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Editor’s note: This is part two of our interview with NASCAR driver Dave Marcis, where he discusses his relationship with Dale Earnhardt. Part one ran Monday and can be read by clicking here.

It was one of the more unlikely friendships in NASCAR, a guy from Northern Wisconsin and a guy from Kannapolis, North Carolina.

One had a pronounced Wisconsin accent – which remains even after living near Asheville, N.C. for the last 50 years – and was kind of quiet. And when it came to work, he’d rather work for himself than anyone else, even if it meant struggling financially.

The other one had a Southern drawl and countless smirks that belied a confidence – some might call it arrogance – that he was the best behind the wheel. The high school dropout also became a master at business to go along with his success on the track.

Dave Marcis, the wing-tipped shoe wearing wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin, and the man who would become The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, were an unlikely pair but that’s also what made them so close.

In addition to coming up through their respective short track ranks in the Midwest and Southeast, the two men shared common interests that included hunting, fishing and working on both their race cars and personal cars.

Here are some of the stories Marcis told NBC Sports about his friendship with Earnhardt:

“When I first heard of Dale racing down here, he wasn’t in NASCAR yet, but he was running the short tracks and had a good reputation – but he also had a rough reputation at the same time,” Marcis said. “A lot of people would say to me ‘you ought to go run this track and race against Earnhardt.’”

They would eventually do so on several short tracks before racing against each other in several hundred NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup races. Marcis made his NASCAR debut in the 1968 Daytona 500, while Earnhardt made his NASCAR debut in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 1978, Marcis was near the end of a one-year deal driving for owner Rod Osterlund when he found out that his contract would not be renewed. His replacement for 1979 was Earnhardt, who would go on to win his first of seven Cup championships in 1980.

Marcis wasn’t upset that his friend would replace him behind the wheel. Rather, he looked forward to returning to his roots as an independent team owner/operator and wished Earnhardt the best of luck.

But there were a few instances over their quarter-century of racing against each other in NASCAR where that friendship was tested, with one time in particular, Marcis recalled.

“We were at Martinsville and Dale was hammering at me and hammering at me, and I got ticked off about it and spun him out,” Marcis said, adding with a laugh, “he wouldn’t talk to me for two months. He was mad.

“But you know what, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I had to stand up for myself and I can’t let people run over me because if I did, then I was going to have trouble all the time.

“Finally one day, he walked up to me and grabbed me around the neck, had a big old grin on his face and said, ‘You know that deal at Martinsville?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir.’ And he said, ‘I had that coming. My daddy always told me if you have any problem with anybody, don’t carry it down the road. I guess you had a problem and you didn’t carry it down the road.’”

When Neil Bonnett was killed in a crash while practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500, Earnhardt turned to his friend Marcis to fill Bonnett’s shoes as his test driver.

“We became the biggest, greatest friends, hunted and fished together,” Marcis said. “After we lost Neil Bonnett, who had done a lot of testing for Dale, I did all of Dale’s testing. I was quite honored to have tested the car, worked with Larry McReynolds and all the guys on the team on the car Dale won the Daytona 500 with and he thanked me in victory circle for that testing.

“He was a great guy, did a lot of things for a lot of people that a lot of people didn’t know nothing about and he didn’t want publicity about.”

With others of their era like Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon, Marcis admits he sometimes wondered why Earnhardt chose him to be so close to over the years.

“I think he had respect for me, and exactly why, I don’t know,” Marcis told NBC Sports. “But a lot of people told me, and I don’t know if there was any truth in it, but they said he kind of looked at me kind of like his father because I worked all the time on the car, drove it and hauled it like his father had to do.

“He was a great person. There are some people who would disagree with you, but you have to remember, he had a lot of respect for everybody but he made things happen on the race track. I remember when he bumped Terry Labonte at Bristol, he said he meant to tap him or bump him out of the way, he didn’t mean to wreck him.”

But that was Earnhardt, he was that competitive. And that same drive extended to things away from the race track. Marcis recalled one incident with a big laugh:

“We’d go somewhere to eat and he’d get in line and the first thing he would do, he would not want to be the last guy in that line,” Marcis chuckled. “He’d walk in front of every one of us that he knew and he’d be the guy to be first ahead of you. He wanted to be first.”

In addition to Earnhardt’s largesse off the track, he was especially benevolent to Marcis over the years, giving him parts, advice and money – but usually on Earnhardt’s terms.

“We were at Talladega one day testing and he asked what was I doing tomorrow?” Marcis recalled. “I told him I’d be home at my shop, getting (his own) car and working on it to get it ready to come back here.

“Dale wanted me to test his car for him but I told him I couldn’t, and I only had a couple of guys at that time. He didn’t say no more about it.

“Then that evening, when the track closed, he came up to me, pulled three $100 bills out of his pocket, stuffed it in my shirt pocket and said ‘Here, take your guys out to eat tonight and this will help pay for your motel room. I already called the people at the motel you’re staying at and told them you were staying another night,’ and then just walked away. So what are you going to do? The next day, where was I? I was at Talladega, testing for Dale.”

Being one of the last independent full-time team owner/operators in NASCAR, Marcis was perhaps more in constant search for sponsorship than better- and more fully-funded teams like Earnhardt’s GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.

One day, Marcis asked his buddy if he would be willing to sponsor his race car.

“We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro,” Marcis said. “I finally got the nerve to go up to him and told him, ‘Dale, you need to sponsor my car at Wilkesboro with Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.’

“He asked how much did I want. I told him $2,500. He said that wasn’t enough. He never said another word the rest of the weekend to me about it. Monday I’m at the shop working and the phone rang and it was Dale. He asked where did I want him to send the decals to, my address. I ended up outqualifying him. About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.”

Earnhardt also had a special bond with Marcis’ wife, Helen.

“Whenever my wife Helen would be in the garage, Dale never walked by her without giving her a hug. How many drivers would do that? That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Helen also figured in a practical joke Earnhardt played on Marcis.

“One time, he called my wife at the house and told her, ‘Tell Dave to be ready at the Asheville airport tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. I’ll pick him up and we’re going to go hunting,’ Dave Marcis said. “When I came home for supper, she told me about the call and I said to her, ‘What are we hunting for?’ She said he didn’t say, where we were going or anything, just told her to tell me to be there.

“So I get out there the next morning, was there at 6 a.m. It was a little after 7 a.m. and he still hadn’t shown up. I kept asking (tower officials) if they had a clearance for his plane to land, that it would only take them about 20 minutes to fly from Statesville.

“By then it was about 7:30 a.m., they landed and Dale comes walking in, looks at me smiling and says, ‘I bet you were here at 6 o’clock, weren’t you?’ You know what I told him. We then went to Texas on a deer hunt.”

Earnhardt was proud to call Marcis a friend, to the point where unbeknownst to his buddy, agreed to put both of them on a set of racing trading cards in 1995, the only time The Intimidator did so with another driver.

“Earnhardt had some trading cards made with his picture on one side and my picture on the other,” Marcis said. “I don’t know why he ever did make them. It says on the cards, ‘Dual Jewels.’ He never told me about why he did it.”

When Marcis, then 60 years old, failed to qualify for the 2001 Daytona 500, he hung out with Earnhardt for the rest of the week leading up to the day of the fateful race that would claim Earnhardt’s life.

Earnhardt worried about his good buddy, who was 11 years his senior, and proposed Marcis hang up his fire suit for good and come to work for him.

“Dale was telling me that week that I need to retire,” Marcis said. “He was going to buy some hunting land around the country in different places and we talked about putting together a race team for Kerry (Earnhardt, Dale’s oldest son).

“Dale wanted me to look at hunting land, maybe even hunt it, and decide if it’s worth buying it because he said, ‘I’m going to start spending my souvenir money on hunting land. You’ve accomplished so much, there’ll never be anybody that’s ever going to accomplish what you’ve done with what you’ve done it with. You need to think about retiring and then I’m going to put you to work.’”

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Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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The 18 cars Dale Jr. chose for NASCAR Hall of Fame

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Saturday will mark the debut of a new lineup of cars for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Glory Road” exhibit.

It will be the fourth set of cars to grace the Hall of Fame’s main atrium since the museum opened in 2010.

The difference with the new batch of 18 cars is they were specifically chosen by former Cup driver and NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt, the first guest curator of “Glory Road,” chose 18 cars that were driven by Cup champions. The exhibit, called “Dale Jr: Glory Road Champions,” will be on display for about three years.

The car lineup was slowly revealed over the last week on social media, culminating in tomorrow’s exhibit opening.

Here are the 18 cars that Earnhardt chose.

 

Richard Petty’s 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

 

The car Petty drove to a win in the historic 1979 Daytona 500, which marked the first live flag-to-flag TV coverage of the “Great American Race.”

Petty claimed the win after last-lap crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison as Petty ran in third. Petty would race an Oldsmobile and a Chevrolet in 1979, winning five times on his way to his seventh and final Cup title.

 

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt’s 1994 Chevrolet Lumina

(Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

 

Fifteen years after Petty’s seventh title, Dale Earnhardt became the second driver to reach that mark, winning four times in 1994 along with 20 top fives and 25 top 10s in 31 races. It marked the end of Earnhardt’s run of six championships in nine years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmie Johnson‘s 2016 Chevrolet SS

(Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It took a little longer for Jimmie Johnson to join Petty and Earnhardt as a seven-time champion, doing so 22 years after Earnhardt. Johnson won five times and earned 11 top fives and 16 top 10s through 36 races. Three of those wins came in the last seven races of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Gordon’s 1997 Chevy Monte Carlo

(Getty Images)

The actual car Gordon won the 1997 Daytona 500 with – his first of three wins in the “Great American Race” – will be on display. The win kicked off Gordon’s second championship campaign. Gordon, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, would go on to win 10 races for the second year in a row.

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Elliott’s 1988 Ford Thunderbird

(Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’s” lone Cup title came in 1988. That year he won six times, including the Southern 500 for the second of three times.

He also won the July race at Daytona, at Bristol, Pocono and swept the Dover races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Stewart’s 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images).

The car Stewart drove to his first of three Cup titles and the second Cup title for Joe Gibbs Racing following Bobby Labonte’s in 2000.

Stewart only won three times (Atlanta, Richmond I and Watkins Glen), but had a 13-race streak that included two wins, five top fives and eight top 10s. He took the points lead for the first time after the 30th race of the 36-race season.

 

 

 

 

Benny Parsons’ 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle

(Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

A former Detroit taxi driver, Parson’s lone Cup title came in the 1973 season despite him only claiming one win (Bristol II). But in the 28-race season, he finished outside the top 10 just seven times.

The championship was part of a nine-year stretch where Parsons did not finish outside the top five in the standings.

 

 

 

 

Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 Ford Thunderbird

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

One of the most celebrated championship stories in NASCAR history, the independent driver-owner Kulwicki won the 1992 Cup title in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, besting four other drivers who entered the race with a shot at the championship, including race winner Bill Elliott.

Kulwicki, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, died in a plane crash on April 1, 1993 on his way to Bristol Motor Speedway.

The car that will sit on “Glory Road” is the car Kulwicki drove to his fifth and final Cup win on June 14, 1992 at Pocono Raceway.

 

 

 

Bobby Allison’s 1983 Buick Regal

(Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Allison claimed his lone Cup title in 1983 off of six wins, 18 top fives and 25 tops 10s in 30 races.

Allison’s wins included three in a row late in the season, with the first in the Southern 500. His title came after he had placed runner-up in the standings five times.

 

 

 

 

 

Cale Yarborough’s 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

In 1978, Cale Yarborough became the first driver to claim three consecutive Cup titles, an achievement that’s been repeated only once since with Jimmie Johnson as part of his five straight titles.

Driving for Junior Johnson, Yarborough won 10 races (for the second time in his career) and earned 24 top 10s in 30 races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buck Baker’s 1957 Chevrolet 150

(Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Baker won his second consecutive Cup title in a car nicknamed “The Black Widow.”

Baker competed in 40 of the season’s 53 races, winning 10 times and earning 30 top fives plus eight more top 10s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rusty Wallace’s 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Wallace’s lone Cup title came in 1989 when he drove the No. 27 car for owner Raymond Beadle. Wallace claimed six wins and 13 top fives during the 29-race season, his last before he teamed with Miller Genuine Draft as a sponsor.

Wallace won the championship by just 12 points over Dale Earnhardt.

 

 

 

 

 

Darrell Waltrip’s 1981 Buick Regal

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Waltrip claimed his first of three Cup titles in five years in 1981 while driving the No. 11 car for Junior Johnson. That year he won 12 races (which he would also do in 1982) and earned 21 top fives in 31 races.

His wins included four in a row late in the season at Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte and Rockingham.

 

 

 

 

 

David Pearson’s 1968 Ford Torino

Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Pearson claimed his second of three Cup titles in 1968 driving the No. 17 car for Holman-Moody Racing. He claimed 16 of his 105 career Cup wins that season, his most in any year.

Pearson also earned 36 top fives over the course of the 49-race season. He started in 48 races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmie Johnson’s 2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Johnson started his historic five-year championship streak in 2006. That year he claimed five wins, including his first victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

This is the first car on the new version of “Glory Road” representative of NASCAR’s playoff era.

 

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt’s 1980 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

The car Earnhardt drove to his first of seven Cup titles in 1980 while he raced for owner Rod Osterlund.

Earnhardt won five times and led the point standings for all but one of the season’s 31 races, leaving the season opener at Daytona second in points.

This car was gifted to Dale Earnhardt Jr. by Talladega Superspeedway in 2017 as part of his farewell tour before he retired from Cup racing.

Dale Jr. helped complete a restoration of the car so it would be historically accurate.

 

 

Richard Petty’s 1964 Plymouth Belvedere

(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

The car “The King” raced to his first of seven Cup titles, totaling nine wins and 37 top fives over 61 starts, including his first of seven victories in the Daytona 500.

In the 500, Petty lapped the entire field of 46 cars while leading 184 of 200 laps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herb Thomas’ 1951 Hudson Hornet

Thomas won 48 races in his Hall of Fame career, including seven times in his first of two championship campaigns in 1951. Thomas raced a Plymouth for much of the first half of the season before switching to the Hornet. His seven wins included a victory in the Southern 500.

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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