A Strong Rally in ’85 Made All the Difference for Waltrip Team

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No one had tell Junior Johnson that he, his team and his driver, Darrell Waltrip, were in difficult straits as the 1985 season wound to a close. With eight races to go, they were 206 points behind Bill Elliott, easily the season’s most dominant driver with 10 superspeedway victories. It was only natural that observers declare there was no way Elliott was going to lose the title. It seemed he would earn the first of his career rather easily. But racing is always unpredictable. While virtually no one thought Darrell stood a chance, his, and Junior’s, thinking was that indeed, they did. It would take some consistently solid performances on their part and some bad luck for Elliott. There was, of course, no guarantee that is what would happen. But that is exactly what happened. And in the space of a mere month, Elliott’s point lead was wiped out.  And it was very clear the battle for the championship would go down to the last race of 1985.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season. As I look back over the years there’s one accomplishment – one of many, I’m pleased to say – made by Junior Johnson & Associates that I consider outstanding, very outstanding, in fact. Sure, we won three Winston Cup championships in a row and a heckuva lot of races. But when it comes to overcoming adversity; to turning a bad, losing situation into a winning one, what happened in 1985 stands out. As you know, Darrell and Neil were our drivers that year. Neil did very well for most of the season but Darrell was far removed from his winning self. That had me a bit concerned. In the second half of the season Darrell turned it around a bit but I didn’t think we’d claim our third title again and for a good reason – one I’ve raised many times. And that was Bill Elliott, who was so dominant in 1985 he left the other drivers and teams flabbergasted – yeah, and us, too. Bill dominated the superspeedways. When he claimed the first Winston Million with his victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington, it was his 10th superspeedway victory of the season, which tied him with David Pearson for the all-time record. For me, that was depressing enough. What was more depressing was that Bill was ahead of Darrell by 206 points with just eight races remaining in the season. But, as I’ve said before, Darrell rallied, especially on the short tracks where we had been strong all year.

After he won the 1985 championship, Waltrip said it was his most exciting and satisfying because he overcame so much to win it. In the space of just four races, Darrell went from 206 points out of the lead into first place, 30 points ahead of Bill. I’ll admit that Bill’s recurring mechanical problems hurt him during this stretch. Darrell had his share of problems, too, but with the team’s help he always seemed to do a better job of overcoming them than Bill. That’s the biggest reason we were able to wipe out a 206-point deficit in just four races. Think of it: We came from a time when folks said we had no chance at the championship at all to a time when we were leading in points. It all happened in just one month. That, to me, remains one of the most outstanding achievements by Junior Johnson & Associates – ever. But there were still four races to go and we hadn’t won anything yet. And Bill hadn’t lost anything, either. After North Wilkesboro, the next race was the Miller High Life 500 at Charlotte and I don’t have to tell you I was on pins and needles. We had won the 600 at CMS in May so I knew we would be good.

But it was yet another superspeedway race and that meant, of course, Bill would be the hands-down favorite. Sure enough, he finished second to Cale. Darrell did a good job to finish in fourth place. He lost 20 points to Bill but was still in first place. That meant Darrell was out front by a mere 10 points and that, to me and just about everyone else, wasn’t enough. The final three races of the season were all on superspeedways and a road course – advantage Bill. But Darrell had the advantage at the next race at Rockingham. He outran Ron Bouchard to win the Nationwise 500 by 1.2 seconds. It was only Darrell’s third win of the season but it happened at a darn good time. Bill finished fourth, which meant Darrell held on to a 35-point lead going into the last two races of the season. Good, yes, but the pad wasn’t big enough. To me, Bill still had the competitive edge as we went to Atlanta and Riverside. Bill had been all but unbeatable at Atlanta – even before 1985 – had he was again this time out. He beat Cale by 4.25 seconds for his 11th win of the season. He broke Pearson’s all-time record. David had won 10 big-track events in 1973. Darrell ran well throughout the race and although he couldn’t match Bill, he finished a strong third. We left Atlanta with a 20-point lead and the road course at Riverside was next. I’d like to tell you that the final race of the season was dramatic or that Darrell and Bill slugged it out for 119 laps, but it wasn’t that way – for which I was grateful. Only six laps into the race, Bill sheared a bolt off his transmission and had to go to the garage area. He spent what seemed like an eternity off the track and when he returned, he was in 31st place.

All Darrell had to do was stay on the track. And all our Chevrolet had to do was stay in one piece. Darrell did and the Chevy did. They came home comfortably in seventh place and we won the title by 101 points. Think of it, we had gone from 206 points down to 101 ahead in just eight races. I could hardly believe it – but I loved it. Darrell did, too. “The thing that makes this championship so much more exciting than the other two is that one guy had so much success this season,” he said. “Everybody was giving Bill the championship after the Southern 500. “But the way it turned out, it meant that two guys had successful seasons.” Me, I was satisfied with the championship, of course, but I was also relieved – and proud. For the longest time I thought we were going to have a mediocre season and get steamrolled by Bill. Then we had that huge rally after the Southern 500. Yes, as I’ve said, Bill had his problems. But to avoid, or overcome, problems are part of racing and can make all the difference in a championship run. I agree with Darrell to this day. Our third championship together was our most exciting and satisfying ever. Too bad it would be our last. (reprinted with permission from Motorsportsunplugged.com )

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