It has been noted before that Junior Johnson’s cars – no matter who drove them – were dominant on NASCAR’s short tracks throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and especially North Wilkesboro Speedway were playgrounds for Johnson drivers, who were expected to win every race.
Perhaps especially North Wilkesboro, the home track for Johnson, whose shops were in nearby Ronda, N.C.
“When it came to racing at North Wilkesboro, Junior never said, ‘If we win,’” long-time Johnson crewman and crew chief Pete Wright once said. “He always said, ‘When we win.’“
It was pretty much the same for all the other short tracks.
That includes Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, a 0.596-mile track that played host to NASCAR Cup Series races from 1958-1984.
For several years, Johnson’s cars did not dominate at Nashville as they had at other short tracks. But that changed dramatically in 1981.
It was Darrell Waltrip’s first year as Johnson’s driver, which came about after Waltrip’s acrimonious split with DiGard Racing Co., with which he had enjoyed success.
In July 1981, Waltrip won at Nashville for the first time as the driver of Johnson’s No. 11 Buick. Waltrip’s success was just beginning.
Over the next two years, he was victorious three times in succession, giving Johnson a streak of four consecutive wins at Nashville over three seasons.
Waltrip won five of the final seven races at Nashville, which established a Johnson dominance on short tracks yet again.
But it was not without controversy – and one that has been recounted often.
In the Coors 420 at the track on May 12, 1984, Neil Bonnett was declared the winner, but his victory was almost immediately challenged by Waltrip.
Waltrip declared that Bonnett passed him illegally during a last-lap caution period. He grew irate when Cup Director Dick Beaty said Bonnett’s win would stand despite the fact he had made his move during a no-pass situation.
Waltrip argued he had beaten Bonnett to the finish line as the caution flag was displayed.
“I won the race right then,” Waltrip said. “He can’t pass me while the yellow is out.”
What caused confusion was the timing of the caution flag – which, in fact, should not have been confusing at all.
A three-car wreck on lap 418 caused the caution to begin on lap 419 with Waltrip as the leader. And as the rule book states, all cars are scored on their position when the yellow flag comes out.
As obvious as the rule is, Beaty somehow misinterpreted it and declared Bonnett, who sped around a slowing Waltrip on the last lap, as the winner.
Beaty, a conscientious, honest and popular official, made very few mistakes during his long career.
But it took NASCAR 48 hours to remove Bonnett as the winner and install Waltrip, who was credited with his fifth win in the last six Nashville races.
The irony of all this is that Bonnett and Waltrip were teammates at Junior Johnson and Associates – the first in the race team’s long history.
To Johnson, which of his drivers won the race really didn’t matter. He was going to be the winning team owner in any case and, more importantly, he was going to earn both first- and second-place money.
“I didn’t care much who won,” a bemused Johnson said years later. “But to be honest, Darrell had a mighty good case. It should never have ended that way.”
Now, you might think a controversial finish between teammates where the original winner was replaced by a driver on the same team is unique to Nashville. Many NASCAR historians would declare you wrong.
It’s happened at least one time before – and it involved teammates who were father and son.
On June 14, 1959, at Lakewood Speedway, a 1-mile dirt track in Atlanta, Richard Petty was flagged the winner and thus earned the first victory of his fledgling career.
However, the second-place finisher protested and demanded a check of the scorecards. The complaint was registered by Lee Petty, Richard’s father and founder of Petty Enterprises who was en route to his third championship.
After an hour, NASCAR reversed the finish and declared the elder Petty the winner. It was the 42nd victory of his career.
At the time, however, many thought the sometimes-cantankerous Lee was being more of a poor sport than a father. After all, he robbed his 21-year-old son of his first major NASCAR career victory.
Not to mention the fact that Richard was his Petty Enterprises teammate.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Lee said. “Of course, I want him to win. He’s going to win. But it has to be the right way. I want him to earn the win, not have it given to him.”
The younger Petty got the first victory of his stellar career in 1960 at the Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte.
At Lakewood, Lee Petty also said with a grin, “Besides, it doesn’t matter which one of us finishes first or second. We’re still going home with all the money.”
The funny thing is 25 years later after another scoring controversy involving teammates, Johnson said the same thing.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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