CP MOTORSPORTS: TOM HIGGINS: A MEMORY OF TEARS, FEARS AND JEERS
I remember the tears of Benny Parsons, the fears of Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt and the unjust jeers of Bill Elliott.
Also, I remember the relief of an elated Bobby Allison.
The emotions shown by these NASCAR stars all came forth during Cup Series season finales with coveted championships at stake.
As Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr. battle this Sunday to join Jeff Gordon in a four-driver fight for the prestigious, rich title in the season finale at Homestead, Fla., , recollections of past pressure-packed last-chances are in mind. Of all the championship chases I covered, the following five season finales are those I remember most:
1973, AGAINST ALL ODDS
The situation: Parsons held a 194.35 points lead over Richard Petty going into the American 500 at N.C. Motor Speedway near Rockingham, a relatively slim margin under the NASCAR scoring system in use at that time. What happened: The worst appeared to have befallen Parsons on the the 13th lap when a crash with Johnny Barnes destroyed the right side of Benny’s Chevrolet. Repairing the car into decent enough condition to race seemed hopeless. But Parsons’ crew, with assistance from many other teams, began work in the garage, "cannibalizing" parts from a car that hadn’t made the field.
It took a whopping 136 laps to get the No. 72 L.G. DeWitt Racing machine going again.
As Benny rolled onto the track most in a crowd estimated at 48,000 roared in approval. The personable Parsons, president at his two sons’ school in nearby Ellerbe, was immensely popular. And his DeWitt team was a decided underdog, operating out of a small shop situated among peach orchards at rural Norman. The outcome: Parsons finished 28th, 184 laps behind race winner David Pearson. It was enough to clinch the title by 67.15 points over Cale Yarborough.
Parsons wept unabashedly, touched not only by taking the title, but also by the wide support afforded him by rival teams.
1979, OLD WEST SHOOTOUT
The situation: In the tightest-at-that-time points battle ever entering a season finale, Darrell Waltrip led Richard Petty by two points under a scoring system inaugurated in 1975.
Expectedly, there was ballyhoo like never before prior to the race at Ontario Motor Speedway, a magnificent 2 ½-mile track in California. Publicists staged a mock Old West shootout on pit road between Waltrip and Petty, who were clad in cowboy attire. Hamming it up, Waltrip pretended to get plugged and folded in pain, falling to the ground like the B-movie desperadoes done in by heroes such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.
What happened: Life imitated “art” in the race. Waltrip, who had feared in long strategy sessions that his team might err in using a conservative gear, was “plugged” for real when he had to loop his Chevy on the 38th lap to avoid a crash just ahead of him. The incident left Waltrip a lap down and he was unable to make up the deficit. The outcome: Petty, concededly “stroking” after Waltrip’s trouble, finished fifth to Darrell’s eighth in a race won by Parsons. The championship, by a margin of 11 points, was Petty’s for a record seventh time (a mark destined to be tied by Earnhardt in 1994).
1980, THE CALE AND DALE SHOW
The situation: Once again, the points race was extremely close with Dale Earnhardt leading three-time champion Cale Yarborough going into the L.A. Times 500 at Ontario.
Excitement escalates as Yarborough wins the pole at 155.499 mph with Earnhardt just a tick behind in second. An editor back in Charlotte exclaims to me, “This stuff is fixed!” I assure him it isn’t.
What happened: In just his second full Cup season, Earnhardt experiences unnerving problems. Privately, he’d expressed fears this might happen. He loses a lap by pitting too early. He barely makes up the deficit racing to a yellow flag. During a later pit stop his anxious crew lets the car fall off the jack. And still later it sends him out with only two of five lug nuts on the right rear tire tightened, leading to a black flag. Earnhardt just manages to stay on the lead lap after pitting to tighten the other lugs.
The outcome: Earnhardt finishes fifth to Yarborough’s third as Parsons again wins the race. Dale takes the title by 19 points.
Afterward, flying to Las Vegas to celebrate, Earnhardt declares: “I ain’t Dale anymore. Call me Champ!” The new first-time Champ stays in Vegas less than 12 hours. “This ain’t me,” he says of the glitz. “I’m going home and this time tomorrow I’ll be in a tree stand deer hunting in South Carolina.”
1983, ALLISON AND AWESOME
The situation: Allison leads Waltrip, one of his biggest rivals, by a seemingly comfortable 64 points entering the finale on the road course at Riverside Raceway in California. The nearby Ontario track has closed, never to reopen. However, Allison has known deep disappointment in previous title runs, finishing second five times, including in ’81 and ’82 to Waltrip.
The outcome: Adopting a strategy against his nature, Allison runs conservatively. For a bit it seems to no avail as a cut tire early in the Winston Western 500 costs him a lap. However, he makes it up and continues to finish ninth against Waltrip’s sixth. The long-awaited title is Allison’s by a margin of 47 points.
The day has been dreary and rainy, but Allison’s happiness sets the garage aglow.
A few feet away, Bill Elliott is beaming, too. He won the race to become a first-time victor in his 116th start. The popular Georgian earlier had been overloaded with good luck charms by fans anxious to see him win. "It just feels awesome," says Elliott, who passed Parsons one lap before a yellow showed that would end the race under caution. "Awesome Bill" is to become his nickname.
1988, HOME STATE HERO
The situation: It’s a bruiser of a battle for the title between Elliott and Rusty Wallace, the season leaders with six and five wins, respectively.
Elliott leads by 79 points going into the Journal 500 at Atlanta International Raceway, his home track. But Wallace has been streaking with victories in three of the last four races.
The pressure mounts for Elliott as he qualifies an uncharacteristic 29th and Wallace wins the pole.
The outcome: Wallace roars away to lead 174 of the race’s 328 laps in a valiant bid to overtake Elliott. However, Elliott avoids trouble that sometimes comes for those starting back in the field. He makes it to the top 10 and rides there, sticking to a conservative strategy.
Wallace wins, but Elliott finishes 11th, a lap behind, good enough for the championship and its millions of dollars in bonuses.
Some Georgia journalists jeer, angry that Elliott didn’t charge, race harder, to please the throng of home state fans among a track record crowd of 72,000.
Points out Elliott, “Those writers probably would feel differently if it was their money at stake.”
Elliott is so happy that he takes everyone in his organization—dozens of people--to New York for the post-season awards banquet