Race Weekend Central

33 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 33rd (1991) Daytona 500

The 1991 Daytona 500 is likely best remembered as a coming-out party for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. The Abingdon, Va.-based team, which had only won once previously, scored the victory with Ernie Irvan.

But while Irvan and the Kodak team were rightfully overjoyed, it was far from the only story that cool February day.

Much was a big unknown entering the race since rule changes had rendered pit stops different at the beginning of 1991 than they were ever were previously.

At the time, there was no pit road speed limit. You were fully within your rights to charge down pit road like your trousers were on fire to get to your stall as fast as possible.

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34 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 34th (1992) Daytona 500

Such a thing could have disastrous consequences. The 1990 season saw two separate pit road crashes under caution. The worst of the two occurred in the season finale in Atlanta Motor Speedway, when Ricky Rudd spun and crashed into Bill Elliott’s crew, killing rear tire changer Mike Rich.

As a result of Rich’s death, big changes were at hand for the 1991 Daytona 500. Changing tires under caution for any reason were banned, even if you had a flat. Everything else was fair game, though. CBS Sports’ Ned Jarrett explained the new rules prior to the start of the race.

These new rules came in addition to stricter policing of things like blend line rules. That caught out a number of drivers in the race.

One rule change here was permanent immediately. This was the first NASCAR Cup Series race with pit signs displayed on poles from behind the wall, replacing the crewmember standing on the hot pit lane with the pit sign you might remember if you’ve seen Days of Thunder. Prior to the changes, this person may have been the most vulnerable member of the pit crew since they would literally have cars at Daytona International Speedway blasting past them at 100 mph while they stood there, unprotected.

Did the new rules affect the race? Yes — substantially.

Drivers being unable to change tires under yellow meant that they would either pit for fuel only, or outright not pit under yellow at all and do all their pitting under green. Drivers that got involved in minor incidents with minimal sheet metal damage were out of the hunt because they either copped one-lap penalties for changing tires under yellow or blew tires trying to hold on until they could legally change them. Or both.

Hut Stricklin, who ran well early on, had that situation happen after he spun on lap 67. He went from running in the lead pack to five laps down. With current rules, he still would have had to replace his windshield (half of which blew out of the car when he spun), but he would have been able to stay on the lead lap or close to it.

After the sixth caution of the race, there was a 103-lap run under green. With a combination of multiple series of pit stops and multiple strategies at play, a number of teams did not feel comfortable taking four tires. Had he actually finished the race (he crashed out on lap 198 with Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison), Kyle Petty would have run the full 500 miles on the same left side tires.

Had the crash on lap 184 involving Richard Petty and Robby Gordon on the backstretch not occurred, the race would have come down to a battle between Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty, because Irvan would have had to pit for fuel late. The caution bailed him out.

Earnhardt was considered to be the odds-on favorite entering the race. He had won the Busch Clash, prevailed in his Gatorade Twin 125 and scored the Goody’s 300 the day before. He took no time to get to the lead as well.

See also
35 Days 'Til Daytona: The 35th (1993) Daytona 500

Things went sideways on lap two. In one of the more unusual moments in his career, Earnhardt obliterated a seagull with his car on the backstretch. The bird hit the Goodwrench Chevrolet right on an oil cooler inlet, causing overheating problems. As a result, Earnhardt spent much of the first half of the race trying to get that taken care of.

A penalty at the beginning of the 103-lap run for violating the blend line effectively ruined his day. With 250 miles straight under green, he tried his best to catch up, but with nearly everyone running by themselves, he could only do so much. He was eventually able to get into the top five on merit with fresh tires, but he was 10 seconds out of the lead.

The Gordon-Petty caution opened the race right back up and put 12 cars in contention. That was almost immediately dropped to single digits when Rusty Wallace crashed shortly after the restart and took four others with him, including Waltrip.

Irvan took the lead for good on the final restart over Earnhardt. As Earnhardt fought a handling issue, Allison tried to take second away. All of a sudden, Earnhardt broke loose exiting turn 2 on lap 198 and took Allison with him. With no overtime provisions, the race ended under caution, giving Irvan the win.

The 1991 Daytona 500 was likely the biggest victory in Irvan’s career, but he more or less fell into it, despite having a fast car. He chose an alternate pit strategy as compared to Kyle Petty that allowed him to take the lead when Petty gave up a 19-second lead to make his final stop with 31 laps to go. The caution on lap 185 kept him up front and put him on the same strategy since everyone else pitted there as well.

Crashes, mechanical issues and pit strategy resulted in a fairly unusual top five for the time. Irvan won over Sterling Marlin, who tied his best career finish at the time. Joe Ruttman, who was back in Cup full time for the first time since 1986, was third in the Dinner Bell Oldsmobile. Rick Mast was fourth, while Earnhardt drove his damaged Chevrolet to fifth. They were the only drivers to finish on the lead lap.

Even with the anticlimactic finish to the race, the 1991 Daytona 500 was the beginning of a new era of restrictor plate racing in NASCAR. Yes, Earnhardt continued to be a tough out there for the rest of his life. However, this ended up being the coming out party for Morgan-McClure.

After the Daytona 500, Morgan-McClure became one of the strongest teams at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. Irvan won four restrictor plate races in the Kodak No. 4, including two straight at Talladega. He was always a factor, although his aggressive demeanor did lead to multiple wrecks such as the Big One in the 1991 Winston 500 at Talladega.

After Irvan left to go to Robert Yates Racing, the team didn’t lose a beat. They hired Marlin and won on debut with him in the 1994 Daytona 500, then repeated the next year. The cars were excellent and the engines and exhaust systems may have been better.

Morgan-McClure had Runt Pittman building engines in those days. He was renowned for finding power in the restricted engines that kept Irvan and Marlin right in the hunt. In 1995, Pittman and the rest of the team developed the X-Pipe exhaust. That resulted in Marlin’s car having a high-pitched whine while no one else’s did. The design quickly became the standard for restrictor plate cars but is no longer in use. In 24 restrictor plate races between 1991-1996, Morgan-McClure Motorsports won nine of them, five at Daytona and four at Talladega.

NASCAR used the pit rules from Daytona for the first five races of the year. Bristol Motor Speedway saw teams with odd starting positions allowed to pit first under yellow and change tires, then the even cars on the second lap. Spinning out or contact on pit road was punishable by a five-lap penalty. A week later at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the odd-even rules were ditched in favor of a setup similar to 1990 with the drivers responsible for safe driving in the pits and strict enforcement of drivers pitting within their pit boxes.

Finally, pit road speed limits were instituted starting with the Winston 500 at Talladega, the ninth race of the year. Those speed limits have been in place ever since. To acclimatize drivers to the speed, the pace car would lead the field down pit road for every race for the remainder of the season at the speed limit. That practice went away at the end of the season but returned in 2020 when NASCAR held races without practice.

About the author

2021 Phil Allaway Headshot Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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Back then NA$CAR had enough sense to get rid of rules that don’t make sense. Too bad the new Brian Trust doesn’t believe in that. Now the rules only make cents for NA$CAR.

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