Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Richmond 1986: Wild Finish Leads to Separate Paths for 2 Drivers

The Miller High Life 400 on Feb. 23, 1986 is considered one of the most memorable NASCAR Cup Series races ever held at Richmond Raceway.

It was highlighted by a wild, metal-crunching finish that involved two of NASCAR’s star competitors and resulted in the first career victory for a third-generation driver from Level Cross, N.C.

In retrospect, the race also served as the season’s final confrontation between Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, whose careers were headed in different directions – although no one knew it at the time.

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The Richmond event was the second of the 1986 season. By that time, Waltrip had been firmly entrenched as the driver for Junior Johnson and Associates.

Waltrip joined the team in 1981 and achieved almost instant success. He was the Cup champion in 1981 and 1982 and came into the 1986 season as the defending champ. In the span of five full seasons with Johnson, he had won 40 races.

Earnhardt was an early sensation. He won the Rookie of the Year title in 1979 and followed that up the next year with his first championship. 

But less than a year later, he left what was then a team owned by J.D. Stacy for a brief, 11-race tenure with owner and former independent driver, Richard Childress.

Earnhardt moved over to Bud Moore’s team for two seasons before reuniting with Childress in 1984. The union showed promise with six victories in two seasons but by 1986 it was clear Earnhardt – and virtually every other driver – was subordinate to Waltrip.

That would change.

The two would clash at Richmond. After swapping the lead for several laps on what was then a 0.542-mile speedway, Waltrip took the lead with a slick move around Earnhardt down the backstretch with three laps to go.

Just about everyone in the crowd of 30,000 knew Earnhardt was about to let Waltrip get away with it and sure enough, as the two raced into the third turn, Earnhardt clipped the right rear of Waltrip’s No. 11 Chevrolet and sent it directly into the steel guardrail.

There followed a chain reaction that caught up all the drivers behind them except for one – Kyle Petty, the 25-year-old son of Richard Petty, who was driving for the Wood Brothers.

As a result, Petty won the race.

A startled Joe Ruttman was second, Earnhardt recovered from the accident to finish third, Bobby Allison took fourth and Waltrip’s heavily damaged Chevy limped to fifth.

Naturally, Johnson and Waltrip were furious afterward. 

 “I haven’t had a run-in with Earnhardt until now,” Waltrip said. “Everyone else has so reckon he’s not choosy.” 

Johnson was a bit blunter.

Of Earnhardt, he said: “He tried to kill my driver.”

Naturally, Petty was thrilled to win his first race. But, as he revealed much later, he would not have been disappointed to finish in the position he held at the time of the incident, fifth.

“Before the race, just about every team in the garage area chipped in to the pool we usually held before every race,” he said. “In the closing laps, Eddie (Wood) called me on the radio and said that being in fifth place meant we were in the money. I should stay right where I was.”

Of course, circumstances changed. 

As for the pool money, Petty never revealed how much he could have won. But it’s not farfetched to think it might have been more than the $25,000 winner’s share of the purse.

NASCAR took a dim view of Earnhardt’s actions and dismissed his explanations with a $5,000 fine and a one-year probation – which was later reduced to a fine of $1,000 only after an appeal.

The Richmond melee was a mere bump in the road for Earnhardt. By season’s end, he won five races, finished among the top five 16 times and 23 times among the top 10, figures very close to those of his championship season of 1980 – and good enough to earn him a second title and his first with Childress.

Waltrip’s numbers weren’t bad: Three victories, 21 top-five finishes and 22 among the top 10. But he finished a distant (288 points) second to Earnhardt in the final standings.

But those weren’t the customary figures with which Waltrip and Johnson had become accustomed.

Even so, no one suspected they might be a catalyst to their separation. 

There was much going on behind the scenes. Waltrip had been in negotiations with Rick Hendrick, a multi-team owner whose cars had enjoyed great success.

They struck a deal in which Waltrip would unite with noted crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson to form a dream team with Hendrick. 

It was hard to imagine that Waltrip would leave Johnson after winning three championships, 43 races and more than $5 million. 

But at a showy press conference in Charlotte, Waltrip kissed the hood of the Hendrick Chevrolet and announced: “I’m getting off an ol’ mule and onto a good, strong thoroughbred.”

To which Johnson replied, “I’ve had a jackass driving my car and now I’m rid of him.”

Although fans and media might have been startled by Waltrip’s move, Johnson revealed that he was not.

“I’ve got a lot of friends in racing,” he said. “I was tipped off as to what was happening pretty early.

“What Rick Hendrick wanted was my Budweiser sponsorship. He thought Darrell could bring it with him. But I had gone out to St. Louis and negotiated a contract extension of my contract that goes through 1989.

“Budweiser stuck with the deal. The sponsorship was mine, not Darrell’s.”

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The 1987 season was a harbinger of things to come. Waltrip compiled one win, six finishes among the top five and 16 among the top 10 and finished fourth in the standings, good but his worst showing in years.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt scorched the competition with 11 victories, 21 top-five finishes and 24 among the top 10, along with a second-straight championship, the best showing of his career.

With Childress, Earnhardt remained in top form for years, which included four more championships.

During his four years with Hendrick and with his own team until the end of his career, Waltrip never approached the level of success he experienced with Johnson. 

“Looking back in hindsight,” Waltrip said in later years, “I feel that if I had stayed with Junior, we would have won a lot more races and we might have earned more championships than anyone else.”

Speaking of looking back, following that now classic Richmond race of 1986, it certainly appears that one of the combatants went one way and the other followed another path.

That may be true. However, both of them ultimately shared another road – one that led to the Hall of Fame.

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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Gray Bostick

Once a King, always a King.

Waid, you are one of the easiest people to understand and best relates with a keyboard.

I’m happy to know I can read YOUR stuff a but easier.

Be safe. Be happy. And be grateful, my friend.

Kevin in SoCal

Yes, another good article from Steve. Thank you for the history lesson!

sdelfin

During the 2020 season disruption, this was one of the races I remember seeing broadcast to fill the air time. It was good to see the old Richmond configuration and the old cars. The race was pretty good and the finish sure was memorable. I’m definitely on Waltrip’s side on that one. I thought it was a pretty egregious move by Dale. But it’s in the past. Interesting how this became a changing of the guard of sorts, even if it was more coincidence than anything else. Good to hear more context in that regard about the trajectories of their careers.

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