Everything Old Is New Again

There’s no doubt the 2002 Winston Cup season is off to a controversial and even bizarre start. But honestly, NASCAR is no stranger to controversy, and there’s not much new under the sun. Most of the incidents that have raised fans hackles to date this season have precedent in the pass. No, I’m not trying to defend NASCAR. (Not my job, man. They have a lot of highly paid people who check their scruples at the door and try to defend the indefensible) but I thought a look back into NASCAR history might be informative for some newer fans.

Controversy: Rules changing daily at Daytona concerning spoilers.
Precedent: 1981 Daytona 500

1981 was the first year of the “down-sized” cars in Winston Cup racing. The wheelbase of race cars shrunk from the long time standard of 115 inches to 110 inches, forcing the race teams to switch to the new downsized bodystyles Detroit was selling (very few of) rather than their aging fleet of full size Monte Carlos and Cutlasses.

The Buick Regal and the Pontiac Grand Prix were two very popular choices under the new rules. But Harry Ranier had an ace up his sleeve, a Pontiac LeMans that he built for his driver Bobby Allison. Ranier and his crew guessed (correctly as it turned out) the sedan roofline of the LeMans would put more air on the rear spoiler giving the car more downforce. And downforce was at a premium in preseason testing and preliminary events at Daytona. In fact the new “little” cars showed an alarming tendency to get airborne when they got even a little sideways. Except for a certain Pontiac LeMans that is. Allison’s Pontiac was clearly the class of the field, and other team owners were angry.

NASCAR quickly allowed teams to increase rear spoiler surface area from 216 to 250 square inches both to try to achieve parity and in hopes of keeping the cars on the ground. But two cars got airborne in the 125s anyway and Allison dominated the first of those two races. Two days prior to the Daytona 500 NASCAR allowed the teams to go to 276 square inch spoilers. Allison was clearly the class of the Daytona 500 field, but Richard Petty managed a surprise win that day in a Buick with late race pit strategy.

Despite the fact Buicks won the first three races under the new rules, NASCAR changed course and decided on different size spoilers for different makes of cars in the interests of parity. While other GM cars could run their spoilers 3 ½ inches high, the Pontiac LeMans was only allowed a 1 ½ inch spoiler. That rendered Allison’s car so slow NASCAR eventually gave the team another inch of spoiler height and finally another half inch on top of that. But the LeMans was still slow so Ranier parked the car in disgust and built a Buick which is what most of the fast teams were running. NASCAR’s stated goal in the all that aero-messing was they didn’t want a “one make” series with all the teams running the Pontiac LeMans. But they got one anyway with Buicks winning 22 of 30 races run with the “little cars” that year, and 25 of 30 races in 1982. (For you Ford and Chevy fans wondering how your makes did in those two seasons, Fords won eight of those sixty races and Chevys were winless in 1981 and won three of thirty races in 1982. A Pontiac didn’t win a single race in either season. And you thought the results were lopsided this year to date?)

Controversy: A car found to be illegal after the race is allowed to keep a race win.
Precedent: Too many to list, even as recently as last year, but the worst call ever was Petty-gate back in 1983 at Charlotte.

Richard Petty was in a then rare slump not having won a race all summer in 1983. The sport’s most popular and recognizable driver had a huge fan base that was getting concerned something was wrong. The October race at Charlotte didn’t seem like it was going to be Richard’s day either. He didn’t lead a lap all day, but then with 23 laps to go the King just blew past the field like they’d dropped anchor. His fans were ecstatic. The media had a great story. The King was once again holding court in Victory Lane. But down in the inspection barn, trouble was brewing.

The first and most obvious infraction NASCAR caught was the fact the 43 car was that right side tires had been mounted on the left side of the car during the final pit stop. In that era the tires were still bias ply and the left sides were much softer than the rights which took more of a beating and thus had to be harder. Having left side tires on the right side of the car, at least during a short sprint, made the car much faster. And the penalty for doing so was well established. Earlier that year Tim Richmond had been slapped with a five lap penalty for the exact same infraction.

And the fun and games weren’t over yet either. A post race measurement of the engine found it displaced nearly 382 cubic inches when the maximum engine displacement allowed was 358 cubic inches. Even the King knew that wasn’t so good. When someone suggested the engine displacement would be smaller once the mill cooled off, Petty said “They could take that one to Alaska and it won’t help none.”

People were shocked when NASCAR announced the win would stand though Petty Engineering was fined a then record $35,000 and docked 104 points. The move didn’t sit well with other team owners who felt that Richard was getting preferential treatment. And if you think Mike Helton was less than forthcoming discussing the Matt Kenseth situation with the FOX broadcast team last Sunday, here’s the gem Bill Gazaway (then NASCAR’s top cop) laid on the press back then. “ We took what we felt were our best options in accessing those penalties. The rational, the “whys” the “what have yous” is that’s that and that’s the end of the discussion.” Yeehaw!

Controversy: Bad call from the flag stand costs a driver a legitimate shot at a race.
Precedent: Pocono, 1979

During the 1979 season a rejuvenated Richard Petty and some new kid named Darrell Waltrip (who was sort of the Tony Stewart of his era) were battling for the Winston Cup championship. Veterans Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were also in there mixing it up, as well as a rookie who made even Waltrip look like Pollyanna, a guy named Dale Earnhardt. (Senior. Junior was four years old at the time.)

That July 1979 Pocono race is best recalled my modern era fans as the day Dale Earnhardt’s rookie season got derailed. Earnhardt crashed hard and broke both his collarbones. He ended up sitting out the next four races while David Pearson filled in for him. (And in the two races following that, Dale started the race but needed a back up driver, Lennie Pond at Richmond and none other than Bill Elliott at Dover.)

There was other odd stuff going on that weekend at Pocono. Darrell Waltrip wrecked his DiGard Oldsmobile, and while they were in a points battle, the team didn’t have a backup car. Waltrip had to rent a racecar for the weekend from Al Rudd. (Ricky’s dad.)

Waltrip and his Rent-a-racer were fast that day. Late in the event he was running second to Yarborough and seemingly sizing up his rival. A caution flag flew for a blown engine and Darrell decided since there were only nine cars on the lead lap he’d pit for four tires feeling certain he’d have enough laps at the 2.5 mile triangular shaped track to use those tires to good advantage. Neil Bonnett also pitted for fresh tires, while the rest of the lead lap cars stayed out. It seemed the track was ready for the race to resume with five or six laps left to run, but the caution flag remained out and the race was allowed to finish under caution to the considerable and vocal disgust of those fans on hand.

Pitting dropped Waltrip from 2nd to 7th in the final running order. Richard Petty advanced to second when Waltrip pitted. The difference between a second and a seventh place finish in a Winston Cup race is 19 points. At the end of the year Waltrip lost the title to Richard Petty by 11 points. You do the math.

Controversy: A big name sponsor leaves a multi-car Winston Cup team unexpectedly throwing the future of that team into doubt.
Precedent: Junior Johnson and Carling Black Label Pseudo-Beer

In June 1974 there was big news. Canadian brewery Carling (makers of some of the worst tasting swill ever to defame the august name of “beer”) signed on to sponsor the two car team co-owned by racing legend Junior Johnson and Richard Howard. The deal was signed for the remainder of the 1974 season and part of the 1975 season, but Carling had options on the next three years. They told Junior they were in the sport to stay. Junior’s drivers that year were Cale Yarborough and Canadian Earl Ross.

Despite six wins with the team (five with Yarborough and one with Ross) Carling was disappointed when Cale, who was leading the standings when they inked the deal, narrowly lost the championship to Richard Petty. Right after Richard clinched the title Carling said they’d decided to get out of Winston Cup racing, leaving Howard and Johnson stunned. Johnson said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep racing and added “I won’t spend a dime of my own money to race.”

Fortunately Citibank and Holly Farms signed on to sponsor a single car team for Johnson and Yarborough in 1975. And while Petty was champion in 1975 again, Carling may have wound up regretting they hadn’t exercised their option to stay aboard with the team. Junior and Cale went ahead and won the Winston Cup championships in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

Controversy: A serious penalty for a “pit” infraction isn’t enforced.
Precedent: Charlotte 1990

Dale Earnhardt was in a tight title battle with Mark Martin for the 1990 Winston Cup championship when the circuit reached Charlotte that October. Neither had a good day in that year’s Mello Yellow 500, but Dale had the worse of the two. His car was struck on pit road by the out of control racecar of Ernie Irvan who had collided with Alan Kulwicki leaving the pits. The normally unflappable Earnhardt returned to the race track and promptly spun himself out. He dashed back to the pit to have his flat-spotted tires replaced but there was a miscommunication. Dale thought the team was doing just right side tires. When the jack dropped he took off with the lug nuts loose on the left side of the car and he only made it just beyond the end of pit road when both left side tires fell off.

NASCAR dispatched a rollback to collect Earnhardt’s stricken car but his crew had other ideas. Grabbing handheld lug wrenches and the jack they took off running down pit road towards the disabled 3 car. A NASCAR official at the end of pit road told them to stop reminding them that (for obvious reasons) no one is allowed to work on a car out on the track surface. The Earnhardt Crew didn’t just ignore that official. They all but knocked him on his butt. They ran over to the car, reinstalled the tires and Earnhardt drove away.

Other team owners and crew chiefs were screaming foul, particularly Jack Roush who owned Martin’s team. NASCAR initially said they were trying to decide on the penalty for the 3 team, which wasn’t clearly spelled out in the rulebook though the 3 team’s actions were clearly illegal. In the end they decided not to access a penalty at all. There’s no telling how many positions Dale would have lost if he’d been penalized or the car had to be towed, but he won that year’s title by 26 points over Mark Martin.

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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