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Waid’s World: Neil Bonnett Changed His Luck in 1988 with 2 Straight Wins

By the time the 1988 NASCAR Cup Series season rolled around to its second event of the season – the Feb. 21 Pontiac Excitement 400 at what was then known as Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway, now known as Richmond Raceway – Neil Bonnett had become both an established star and a popular personality.

The 41-year-old from Bessemer, Ala., had already enjoyed a career that was fashioned very quickly.

He started in NASCAR racing his own cars in 1974 and a decade later, he had already won races driving for some of NASCAR’s most successful and well-known teams, such as K&K Racing, Rod Osterlund Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and Junior Johnson & Associates.

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Bonnett’s rapid progress was the result of at least three things: his obvious driving talent, his agreeable nature and his outgoing personality. No one had to teach Bonnett how to deal with team officials, sponsors, media and fans. It all came to him naturally – and with it, his popularity.

Once Bonnett met a member of the media, he never forgot the person’s name. And he always gave the same greeting: “Whatcha doin’ today?”

In 1977 while driving for Jim Stacy (who purchased Nord Krauskopf’s team and its celebrated No. 71 orange Dodge), Bonnett won the first two races of his career at Richmond and Ontario Motor Speedway.

A good example of Bonnett’s affable personality and sense of humor came after that Richmond victory.

Working for The Roanoke Times then, somehow I was able to finish my report on the Richmond event and return to Roanoke within two hours – which certainly wasn’t routine.

I turned on the TV to catch the local station’s late news coverage of the race. I quickly noticed that the sports reporter wasn’t the usual veteran. He had been replaced by a somewhat nervous novice.

“In Richmond today,” he said, “the NASCAR race was won by the noted French driver, Nyles Boonay.”

I literally fell out of my seat laughing.

At the next race, I eagerly sought Bonnett out. When I saw him, I quickly confronted him.

“Whatcha doin’ today?” he asked.

“Hey, it’s you!” I exclaimed. “You are that famous race driver! It’s zee Nyles Boonay!”

Bonnett looked puzzled, but he was smiling.

“What in the world are you talking about?” he asked.

I told him what I saw on TV.

“That’s funny, but it’s also kinda neat,” he said. “I sorta like it!”

For the next several weeks, if anyone didn’t call him “Nyles Boonay,” he wouldn’t answer – but he always flashed that smile of his, of course.

Bonnett went winless in 1978 but won one race or more in eight of the next 10 seasons.

At Richmond in early 1988, he was in the middle of a 29-race losing streak dating back to October of 1986 at Rockingham Speedway.

That race was the next-to-last in Bonnett’s three seasons with Johnson, who was bringing his multi-car operation to a conclusion.

Darrell Waltrip had been Bonnett’s teammate with Johnson, and while both had enjoyed success from 1984-86, a disgruntled Waltrip (who won championships with Johnson in 1981, ’82 and ’85), was moving on to Hendrick Motorsports.

With impending reduced sponsorship, and the sponsor’s subsequent refusal to allow Dale Earnhardt to be the new driver, Johnson returned to a one-car operation with Terry Labonte.

At the same time, Bonnett hooked up with Rahmoc, a team co-owned by Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly. It was a quality operation for sure, but not one that had reached the status of the Wood Brothers or Johnson.

Bonnett went winless in 1987, and his season was shortened by two races after he suffered a fractured hip in a crash caused by a blown tire in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But after he healed and some internal changes were made, things looked promising for 1988.

The season got off to a good start as Bonnett finished fourth in the Daytona 500. The team felt confident that the next event, at Richmond, would also produce good results. The track was one of Bonnett’s favorites – and he had already won on the half-mile facility.

The race garnered more than its usual share of attention because the Pontiac Excitement 400 was going to be the last race on Richmond’s half-mile configuration before it would be enlarged and revamped for the second event of the season.

Naturally, fans were anxious to see who would emerge as the winner. It would be Bonnett.

He qualified third and ran at, or near, the head of the field for most of the race. He passed Lake Speed with 48 laps remaining and led the rest of the way to end a 16-month drought, winning his first event for Rahmoc and the 17th of his career.

“Man, I needed this,” Bonnett said. “As you know, things haven’t gone too well for me lately.”

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They would get even better. Two weeks later, in the Goodwrench 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway – more popularly known as Rockingham – Bonnett overcame adversity to win again.

He started 30th in the field of 41 after a poor qualifying effort and spent most of the race trying to catch up. Finally, he did so, and on lap 122, he took the lead, the first of his 166 laps led in the 492-lap race.

Thereafter, his No. 75 Pontiac was the class of the field, helping Bonnett to overcome an early few slow pit stops to win by 0.62 seconds over Speed.

The victory was Bonnett’s second in a row – well, make that his second Cup victory in a row.

The fact is, it was Bonnett’s third consecutive win. He won another race that was sandwiched between the two weeks that separated Richmond and Rockingham.

It was a special exhibition race that awarded no Cup points. Nevertheless, it was historical because of its location – one at which no one ever imagined NASCAR would compete:

Australia.

Next week on Waid’s World the story of NASCAR ‘Down Under’ as told by a writer who was there.

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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