Tim Richmond's comeback win at Pocono was an emotional one


- Contributor
Thursday, Jun. 07, 2012

I have always read and heard and been told that “Time marches on.”

Not that it “rushes” on.

But for me, and probably thousands of others who have followed NASCAR for some years, rush is just what time has done in one case. Rushed far faster than a qualifying lap at Talladega.

Could it possibly have been 25 years, more than a quarter of life expectancy, since driver Tim Richmond staged a dramatic comeback to win a 500-mile Cup Series event at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania?

It could have.

I double-checked the record book to be sure.

Indeed, it happened on June 14, 1987 at the triangular, 2.5-mile track in the picturesque Pocono Mountains.

What developed that day seems just as unbelievable now as it did back then.

Permit me to reprise the story I filed that Sunday that doesn’t seem nearly so long ago:

Tim Richmond returned to stock car racing a winner Sunday, just the way he left it last winter before a life-threatening case of pneumonia sidelined him. Driving his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series event this year, Richmond won the Miller 500 at Pocono Raceway, outdueling some of his sport's toughest performers - Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt - in a thrilling stretch run.

A weeping Richmond, 32, was so overcome by his accomplishment that he couldn't speak for several moments after arriving in victory lane. As a record crowd estimated at 90,000 cheered, Richmond's mother rushed up to embrace her son.

"It's kind of hard to say anything right now," said the usually flashy, talkative Richmond, who led the circuit in 1986 with seven wins, including the season-ending Western 500 at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway.

"I didn't think race car drivers ever got tears in their eyes, but this one does today. It was something."

It was that.

Richmond charged around the triangle-shaped speedway with abandon in a closing six-lap sprint after the last of 10 caution periods. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the finish line .53 seconds ahead of Elliott's Ford.

The checkered flag gave Richmond his third straight 500-mile win at Pocono in cars engineered by a Harry Hyde-led crew. It also made him the track's all- time NASCAR victory leader with four.

Petty followed Elliott by about six car lengths and Cale Yarborough finished fourth, his best showing since forming his own team. Earnhardt, who appeared to be the biggest threat to spoil Richmond's storybook comeback, completed the top five.

After leading 55 laps of the race’s 200 laps, Earnhardt rode right on Richmond's rear bumper from Lap 154 and seemed poised to make a strong move. But Earnhardt, the Winston Cup point-standings leader, ran through the debris that caused the last caution flag on the 193rd of 200 laps. Ordinarily, Earnhardt would have pitted as a precaution against a cut tire, but since Richmond stayed out, he did too.

When the green showed on Lap 196, Earnhardt had a tire going down and was quickly passed by Elliott, Petty and Yarborough.

"I just had to hang on and survive the last five or six laps, " said Earnhardt. "Until the right front went flat I think I had a real shot. I was in the catbird seat. I was just watching Tim eat his tires up and figuring out where would be the best place to make my move."

The first turn, where Earnhardt found the debris, was a trouble spot throughout the race. The weather-ravaged asphalt was breaking up there and was blamed in part for crashes by Morgan Shepherd, Joe Ruttman (driving in relief of injured Richard Petty) and Benny Parsons.

The wreck involving Parsons, the driver chosen by team owner Rick Hendrick to fill in for Richmond and now his teammate, played a pivotal role in the outcome.

Richmond, who started third, showed early power but on the Lap 94 restart after the third caution period he suddenly ducked into the pits.

"Tim got a bit overeager and in jamming the car into gear he bent the rods between the shifter and the transmission, " said Hyde. "That left us with only high gear."

Pushed off by his crew, Richmond emerged from the pits a lap down. But on Lap 119 he ran Elliott down to get back on the lead lap. Now Richmond needed a long caution to give his teammates enough time to straighten the shifter and give him the other gears. The critical yellow flag came on Lap 121 at Parsons' expense.

"I don't know what happened," said Parsons, who was not injured. "All of a sudden I was sideways and hit the wall a ton."

Richmond said the wreck looked so bad he almost stopped to aid Parsons. "But the crew radioed me that Benny was OK and I came on around to see if they could fix the transmission problem."

Said Hyde: "The rod was almost bent too bad to fix, but we got it working well enough for Tim to go on."

And go on he did, eventually leading 91 laps and averaging 122.133 mph for a purse of $40,325.

"I really felt ready today," said Richmond, who ran The Winston special event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, finishing third behind Earnhardt and Elliott.

"I thought maybe I'd be rusty, and so many people had asked about what shape I was in, I thought for a while a few weeks ago I might couldn't come back.

"But it went off like clockwork. It's just like the past few months never happened."

Richmond was hospitalized in his native Ohio from early December into January. He since has been recuperating in Florida.

"I didn't see the checkered flag, which I'd dreamed about during the layoff, 'cause I had tears in my eyes so bad," said Richmond. "I'd get composed, and then Dale and Bill and Kyle and the other guys would drive alongside me to offer congratulations and I'd start bawling again.

"I went around a second lap after the finish so I wouldn't be crying when I came to Victory Lane, but it didn't do any good."

Said Hyde: "This is my 41st year in racing and I have never seen such a sentimental day. A million people must have asked me when and if Tim Richmond would come back. I have the answer for them: Tim Richmond is back."

This was my report from Pocono, where the Cup Series teams gather again to race this weekend.

It seemed that the colorful Hyde was correct.

Richmond triumphed again the following Sunday on the road course at Riverside, Calif.

Alas, that proved to be the last of his 13 victories.

Just two months later, after the Champion 400 on Aug. 16, 1987 at Michigan International Speedway, Tim Richmond was gone from racing for keeps. Soon we learned the reason: He was afflicted with AIDS.

The disease took his life on Aug. 13, 1989 at age 34.

Those of us who saw him drive a race car never will cease to marvel at his talent. Most of all, that which he exhibited during a dramatic, emotion-filled Sunday in June 25 years ago.

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