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NASCAR 101: 3 Old School Owner-Drivers

With Tony Stewart‘s retirement on the horizon, the role of owner-driver in the Sprint Cup Series may potentially be reaching its final chapter. The addition of franchising combined with the expenses of running a top-tier program these days makes it difficult to see another athlete hopping on that bandwagon.

Stewart, though, isn’t like most owner-drivers in the history of NASCAR. Most of these old school independents struggled from race to race just to keep their operation in business, didn’t have the big money sponsorship that Stewart had and failed to possess the equipment to run up front consistently.

This week’s NASCAR 101 looks at three of these men whose race teams were an important part of the sport’s long history.

One rule I had when making this list is that the drivers in it never won. Sure, I could do a write-up on Alan Kulwicki, but what else is there to say about the 1992 Cup champion that hasn’t already been said? This list looks at two names not many people see or hear about in modern NASCAR and puts another name in a different light. Their stat sheets may be far from impressive but, considering what these drivers typically had to work with, their careers had an impact far beyond the record book.

J.D. McDuffie

You could call J.D. McDuffie a loser, a failure, whatever. But one thing you couldn’t call McDuffie is a quitter.

McDuffie holds the dubious honor of starting more races than any other driver in the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series without winning a race. 653 times J.D. McDuffie fired up his engine on the grid, and 652 times McDuffie ended his day without pulling into Victory Lane. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the 653rd attempt to completion.

That’s not to say McDuffie didn’t have his days in the sun. The North Carolinian finished in the top 20 in points 10 straight seasons and also had 106 top-10 finishes. McDuffie’s pole at Dover in 1978 was his career highlight, a great feel-good story that also granted the driver access to the very first pre-season Unlimited at Daytona the following year.

Sadly, McDuffie’s career ended tragically.  On the fifth lap of the Watkins Glen International Cup race in 1991, something broke on McDuffie’s car and the veteran hit the turn 5 wall at near full force. The car flipped over, landed on top of Jimmy Means’ No. 52 car, and McDuffie perished as a result of the incident.

LastCar has a great interview from a few years ago from McDuffie crew member Marty Burke that goes much more in depth on this owner-driver. The article ends with a quote from Burke that sums up most of the so-called “strokers” from yesteryear:

“J.D. could do more with less (money, parts etc.) than anyone I know, but mostly he was a fine man and my friend.”

Herman Beam

Herman Beam was nicknamed The Turtle, and for good reason. The conservative Tennessean was quite possibly the best driver in this sport’s history at conserving the car.

Instead of going for broke and possibly breaking a part, Beam would simply take it easy during races and hope to win enough money to make it to the next one. It was a strategy many legends from back in the day such as Curtis Turner wouldn’t even entertain. Although Turner is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Beam, well, isn’t, The Turtle was still able to salvage a career out of nothing and ended up starting more races than Turner.

Beam was the holder of a record many drivers tried to break for years before Greg Biffle finally did so in 2014: most consecutive starts by a driver without dropping out of a race early. Although Beam’s 84 consecutive starts were not really consecutive (Beam didn’t race in every single race in the two-year timeframe), Beam’s record might be more impressive than Biffle’s. Why? In that era, it was much easier to get DNFs because the cars were so much more fragile than today’s more durable race-made machines.

In 194 starts, Beam only had 13 DNFs and ranked fourth in the 1959 Cup standings.

Richard Childress

Although Childress ended up winning six championships and over 100 races as an owner, the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee also drove in the Sprint Cup Series for a number of years.

Childress’ first Cup start at Talladega in 1969 also marked the birth of Richard Childress Racing. Childress would race full-time for most of the 1970s, earning a best finish of third and 76 top 10s in 285 starts. Childress also enjoyed five seasons finishing inside the top 10 in points, peaking with a best finish of fifth in 1975.

But as respectable as Childress was as a driver, he obviously turned out to be a much better owner. Childress stepped out of his own No. 3 car midseason in 1981 and hired defending Cup champion Dale Earnhardt to slide behind the wheel. Although the first partnership between the two did not last initially (the two parted way after that year), Earnhardt’s second stint with the team from 1984-2001 was one of the greatest and most iconic dynasties in the history of racing.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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