Thirty years ago, Darrell Waltrip won the inaugural NASCAR All-Star Race in dramatic fashion at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as his engine blew just as he crossed the finish line.
The next day, he soundly beat Harry Gant by more than 14 seconds to win the Coca-Cola World 600.
Just shy of six months later, Waltrip, crew chief Jeff Hammond and team owner Junior Johnson celebrated the third of Waltrip’s Cup series championships.
The trio credits a large part of that championship to the Memorial Day weekend performance at Charlotte that season.
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“Bill (Elliott) had such a huge points lead on us, but from that race weekend on, we knew we could beat him if we just worked harder,” Waltrip said.
There was another key ingredient that weekend – the car with which Waltrip won the all-star race.
It was so good, Waltrip wanted to run it in the 600. At first, NASCAR said yes, so long as Waltrip started at the rear of the field.
Sunday morning, just hours before the start of the race, NASCAR officials reversed themselves and Waltrip’s team was sent scurrying to re-prepare the car with which he had qualified.
Waltrip’s car made it to the starting grid just before the national anthem, and he went on to win the race.
He came close, however, to not even starting it.
‘I loved the all-star car’
Through the first 10 races of the 1985 season, Elliott had already won five times and held a 19-point lead over Geoffrey Bodine in the series standings heading into the 600. Waltrip was sixth, 134 points back.
The previous fall, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., then the Cup series sponsor, had announced it was creating an all-star race, which would be held for the first time the following May on the day before the 600.
The winner of the race would receive $200,000 – an enormous sum at that time.
Although Waltrip had yet to win a points-paying race that season, Hammond was determined to win the inaugural all-star event.
“The effort we put into winning that first race will always stick in my mind because we never worked that hard on another car except for the Daytona 500,” Hammond said.
Using a late pit strategy in order to have fresher tires at the finish, Waltrip ran down Gant and passed him on the last lap to win, even though his engine blew crossing the finish line.
“I loved the all-star car, and after we won, we knew we’d be stupid not to run it in the 600,” Waltrip said. “It was the fastest thing there, so why not run it?”
At the time, NASCAR had none of the strict rules about the use of backup cars like it does today and the all-star race was brand new, so there had never been a similar request.
Hammond said Dick Beatty, then NASCAR’s competition director, told him Saturday afternoon the team could switch cars for the 600 since both had passed inspection, so long as Waltrip started at the rear of the field.
Hammond and his crew went right to work on refitting the car for the 600.
Sunday morning, four hours before the scheduled start of the 600, Hammond got a different message from NASCAR officials.
“Well, NASCAR checked the rulebook a bit more because we were informed Sunday morning about 8:30 a.m. that we couldn’t run it,” Hammond said. “By that time we had the car just about ready to race.”
Johnson was incensed.
“He told Hammond to load up the cars because we were pulling out and going home,” Waltrip said. “Since Junior was used to winning and we hadn’t won yet then in the 1985 season, that moment seemed to put him over the edge. Junior didn’t make idle threats.”
No, he didn’t.
“NASCAR told me one thing and made me do another and that makes you mad,” Johnson said. “You couldn’t get a good answer out of them back in them days, they didn’t know what the (heck) they were doing themselves.”
Sitting out the 600 would be a huge hit in points for Waltrip, effectively ending any chance he would have at the series title that season.
Hammond recalls staring at Waltrip and both saying the same thing at the same time: “We can’t just leave.”
‘We worked our guts out’
With an angry owner, an unprepared car and little time, Hammond and Waltrip were overwhelmed.
“Since we had been so good on Saturday, Hammond and I knew it was imperative to calm Junior down so we could run the 600,” Waltrip said.
It wasn’t easy, but the team remained focused on the bigger picture.
“The implications of us pulling out of the 600 were huge that year because we already were fighting an uphill battle with how well the Fords were running,” Hammond said. “You hate to leave a prize like that on the table just to prove a point. Our point was better proven by taking a car that we felt was not as good as what we had on Saturday and kicking their butts with it on Sunday.”
The team first had to take the engine out of the all-star car and put in back in the 600 car, in addition to undoing numerous other changes made the day before.
“I was perturbed because NASCAR let us do all the work to change the car and then go back and put it back the way it was,” Johnson said. “You always worry about leaving something loose when you’re working in a panic.”
Said Hammond: “I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked with a group of men in my life to undo what we’d already done.”
The crew, with Waltrip, rolled out the car just as the national anthem began.
In the end, Waltrip, Hammond and Johnson got what they all craved – their first points-paying victory of the season.
The path to Victory Lane was long – but perhaps necessary.
“We took on all challengers coming and going, whether NASCAR or Harry Gant or whatever 600 miles at Charlotte could throw at you in the heat of the day, and came out on top,” Hammond said. “It was a testament to what our sport really is all about.”
The result is not one Johnson or Waltrip will ever forget.
“That weekend was something special, and it was the start of us really going after that championship,” Johnson said. “We used a lot of what we learned that weekend the rest of the season.”
Said Waltrip: “That weekend pole-vaulted us and got us the momentum and motivation we needed to fight Bill (Elliott) and wrestle the championship away from him. We worked our guts out.”