That's Racin Magazine

OK, coach, what'll it be?


- Contributor
Thursday, Nov. 08, 2012
Tom Higgins

Tom Higgins.

In 1979, it was like Darrell Waltrip, crew chief Buddy Parrott and team owner Bill Gardner huddling to chose a final, deciding play with the ball on the one-yard line and time expiring in the Super Bowl.

In 1980, it was like Dale Earnhardt fumbling twice with the championship teetering in the balance.

In 1990, it was like team owner Jack Roush ordering a bewildering, drastic change in the playbook for Mark Martin, as driver and “quarterback,” to undertake during a final drive at the Cup Series crown.

I recall these tussles for NASCAR’s prized title as Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski contest the championship with only two races remaining in the long, 36-event season. They are scheduled to run at Phoenix on Sunday, then at Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 18.

Johnson, seeking a sixth trophy as champion, leads Keselowski by seven points in another dramatic duel for a victory worth millions of dollars. Keselowski is trying to become a first-time champion.

The points system during the years I mentioned earlier was drastically different and there was no Chase “playoff” over the final 10 races.

However, the situations were just as exciting and – for the competitors – similarly excruciating.

Waltrip, Parrott and Gardner huddled at the long-ago dismantled Ontario Motor Speedway, a beautiful 2.5-mile track in California.

Talking quietly and with deep intensity in the garage area, they were trying to decide on a gear ratio for the season-ending L.A. Times 500.

Waltrip led six-time champion Richard Petty by a scant two points.

The decision was to go conservative with the gear setting. In football, it was like calling a run up the middle.

It backfired.

Waltrip qualified tenth to Petty’s fifth.

As a result, Waltrip was a bit back in the field in the 38th of the race’s 200 laps when a slower car looped in front of him on the backstretch.

Waltrip’s Chevrolet had minimal damage, but he lost a lap. When the yellow flag showed two laps later, he was trapped a lap down and was unable to make it up.

Petty then played it safe in his Chevy and relatively coasted to a seventh championship, finishing fifth to beat Waltrip by 11 points.

The late Benny Parsons, incidentally, won the 500.

“I ain’t never going to figure it out,” said a disconsolate Waltrip. “Never, never, never. I’m leaving here with a broken heart.”

Parrott did figure it out. “We out-engineered ourselves,” he said.

Back at Ontario in 1980, the combatants to become champion were second-year Cup driver Dale Earnhardt and the tough veteran, Cale Yarborough.

Earnhardt led by 29 points entering the season finale, in which Yarborough was trying for a fourth straight title with a team owned by Junior Johnson.

When Yarborough won the pole position and Earnhardt qualified alongside him, one of my editors at the Charlotte Observer screamed at me as I filed my stories, “Don’t tell me this stuff ain’t fixed!”

“Have you considered what a master conspiracy that would have to be, involving all those other drivers and their teams?” I asked.

He mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

As Yarborough swapped the lead with others, Earnhardt trailed 10 or so car-lengths behind.

Then came Dale’s first “turnover,” or fumble. He pitted too early on the 71st lap and fell a lap behind.

During a caution period on Lap 146 Earnhardt made up the deficit in a charge to the flag, barely edging Yarborough at the line. unior Johnson disputes that call to this day. “It wasn’t even close!” says Junior.

A NASCAR official openly cheered for Earnhardt in the press box.

Earnhardt, driving for a team owned by Rod Osterlund, now was within the margin of error in terms of points.

But he was to fumble again – spectacularly.

While pitting for a final time on the 183rd of 200 laps there was miscommunication between driver and crew. The call was for fuel only, but some crewmen began changing the right-side tires.

Earnhardt sped away, his car essentially falling off the jack. Only two of the lug nuts on the right rear were secure. Earnhardt was black-flagged and very nearly lost a lap again.

“My heart almost stopped,” Earnhardt conceded later.

Given a reprieve, Earnhardt managed to finish fifth to Yarborough’s third as Parsons once again triumphed. The margin for the crown was 19 points. Earnhardt was champion for the first time and en route to seven titles, tying Petty for a record now seemingly within reach of Jimmie Johnson.

From the moments of his fumbling, bumbling despair, Earnhardt reverted to his cocky self immediately after the race.

“I ain’t Dale anymore,” he told friends. “Call me Champ!”

In 1990, Mark Martin held a seemingly insurmountable 45-point lead over Earnhardt with only the races at Phoenix and Atlanta remaining.

A late pitting gamble to change tires at Phoenix cost Martin several spots – and points – as Earnhardt dominated the race in a winning drive, leading the final 272 of 312 laps. Martin finished 10th.

Martin’s now trailed by six points as the Atlanta race awaited in two weeks.

Roush and the Ford brass in Detroit deemed that an extensive test was necessary at the 1.5-mile Georgia track to prepare for the showdown with Earnhardt and his Richard Childress-owned Chevy team.

Editors at the Observer agreed that we should cover the test.

I arrived at the track to behold a stunning sight.

Not only was the Roush team there with several cars, but other Ford team owners – Robert Yates, Leonard Wood, Bud Moore, Junie Donlavey – had arrived with some of their best superspeedway machinery.

Chassis specialist Jake Elder was also there in an advisory capacity. And Ford had engineer Preston Miller on hand with a special research-and-development Thunderbird, which was arrayed with a forest of antennas to transfer data to computers.

Martin ran lap after lap in car after car. It was striking to watch the way Martin and Roush conferred quickly between the runs. Then, after an animated pat on the fanny from his car owner, the driver would sprint over and climb into another car.

It looked exactly like a football coach and his quarterback having a final word on the sideline about a "Hail Mary" play.

Late in the morning, Earnhardt and Childress showed up at the Atlanta speedway with a couple of Chevrolets. They watched the frantic Ford contingent scrambling about.

Earnhardt ran a few laps, loaded up and left. Laughing all the way, I imagine.

To me, this remains perhaps the greatest "psyche job" in NASCAR history.

The headline the next day in the Charlotte Observer was “Ford Teams Gang Up On Earnhardt.”

A day later, it was announced that Martin would switch to one of the Thunderbirds that Yates usually fielded for Davey Allison. The Roush team was forsaking its own equipment – in which Martin had won three races and taken his lead in the standings.

I sensed it wasn’t going to work early during race morning as I walked by the Martin/Roush stall in the garage area. Crew chief Robin Pemberton’s face was a dark scowl as he stood beside the Ford repainted in the No. 6 team’s red, white and blue.

I caught Robin’s eye.

“This sucks,” he said in a whisper.

Indeed it did.

Martin managed to finish only sixth, a lap down to winner Morgan Shepherd. Earnhardt placed third, taking his fourth championship by 26 points.

Now, the late-game huddles have Jimmie Johnson and his Rick Hendrick-owned squad matching wits against Keselowski and the Roger Penske-fielded team.

It will be interesting to watch as their signals are called.

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