50 Years of nascar racing ~ My ONe And Only, Part 2 (Post 71)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Below are more accounts of drivers who have posted a single win in Grand National or Winston Cup racing. You might be surprised by some of the names on the list.
Mario Andretti - Yes, that Mario Andretti. Mario is one of the most versatile drivers in the history of motorsports. Not only was he a legend in sprint cars, an Indy 500 winner, CART Champion, Formula One World Champion, and a front runner at LeMans, but Mario also made 14 starts in NASCAR Grand National races in the late 60s. In that era, Ford and Mopar were scrapping like pit bulls for supremacy in the world of motorsport, and when it came to a high profile race like the Daytona 500, they imported all their big guns. Thus Mario was given a ride in a powerful Holman-Moody Ford as a teammate to Ford's big gun in NASCAR, Fred Lorenzen. Considering it was only his sixth start (including his 125 qualifier race that year) Mario was not considered to be a legitimate threat for the win in the prestigious 500-mile event despite the big gun he was packing under the hood. Some of NASCAR's good old boys even laughed a bit about Mario's foreign accent. They stopped laughing real quick once the green flag dropped. By lap 23, Mario had stormed into the lead. He ran up front all day, and battled with the likes of Lorenzen, and Chrysler's ace, David Pearson, all day. When Pearson's potent Hemi engine blew up, the victory was all but sealed. Andretti and Lorenzen were on a lap by themselves when the checkered flag dropped under caution, and Andretti had the advantage. I suppose if you are only going to win one race in your career, it may as well be the Granddaddy of them all, the Daytona 500.
Mark Donahue - By the 1970s, the factories were out of racing, and the use of crossover drivers from open wheel racing was much less prevalent. Exceptions were still made, particularly on the road courses, where the Indy car drivers had more experience than the NASCAR stars. This country has produced few finer road racers than Mark Donahue, star of Trans Am, Can Am, sports car, and IndyCar type racing. Mark's lifelong friend and car owner, Roger Penske, had started dabbling in NASCAR racing the previous year, and Donahue had driven four races in the Winston Cup series in 1972 without any great success. Still, the team decided to field a car for the 1973 season opener at Riverside California. The car they brought to the track was a less than lovely red, white and blue AMC Matador that was a bit of a circus wagon. But underneath its misshapen flanks resided one of Roger Penske's famous "Unfair Advantages", four wheel disc brakes, a first on a Winston cup car. With the braking power required to whoa up a heavy Winston Cup car for the corners, and Mark's experience on road courses, he obviously had an advantage. Mark not only won the race that day, he dominated it start to finish. Before long, four-wheel disc brakes became standard equipment on Winston Cup cars, though it would be another 18 years before Roger Penske committed himself to a full time Winston Cup program.
Greg Sacks - Yes, Greg Sacks not only won a race, he won at Daytona. Unfortunately, like Brett Bodine's win, there will always be a cloud of controversy surrounding Sacks' triumph. As the Winston Cup circuit arrived at Daytona for the Firecracker 400, Bill Elliott was an odds on favorite to win. Awesome Bill wasn't just winning on the Superspeedways, he was flat out dominating those races. He was, in fact, coming off two straight Superspeedway wins as the Coors hauler pulled his potent Thunderbird into the Daytona infield. One of the drivers struggling a bit that year was Bobby Allison, the 1983 Winston Cup champion. Because of those struggles, the DiGard team decided to enter an "experimental" car, just to try out a few new tricks. Or so they said. Journeyman Greg Sacks was tapped to fill the seat of the car. Midway into the race it became obvious; whatever experiment the DiGard crew was trying out, it was a rousing success. On lap 100, Sacks blew by Elliott, seemingly with ease. A stunned crowd watched as Elliott fought valiantly but to no avail. Sacks coasted on to a half-lap victory.
There was some unexpected fallout from the win. Rather than being thrilled DiGard had something hot in the works, Bobby Allison felt humiliated he had been given the second string car at Daytona, and he quit the team that week. Rumors have circulated ever since that day in July that the so called secret was an oversized engine the crew chief managed to slip by NASCAR's inspectors. That crew chief just smiles and doesn't deny it or confirm it these days. And who was this slippery fellow? None other than Gary Nelson, who currently runs the inspection process for NASCAR, and seems to know every trick someone tries to slip by him.
Jody Ridley - Controversy just seems part and parcel of the lot of NASCAR's one hit wonders, perhaps because the big name drivers have trouble handling the fact an obscure driver beat them. Jody Ridley's win at Dover in the Spring of 1981 is another one of NASCAR's unsolved mysteries. Did he or didn't he win? NASCAR admits there may have been some scoring errors, but that day it didn't seem like they would become an issue. Neil Bonnett had flat out made a mockery of the competition and had led 403 of the first 459 laps en route to a two lap advantage over second place Cale Yarborough. As always seemed to be the case, bad luck struck Neil and at that point his engine blew up. Still the outcome didn't seem in doubt. Cale had a two lap lead over the rest of the field and seemed poised to capitalize on Bonnett's misfortune. Then, with 20 laps left to go, Yarborough lost an engine too. That opened up no little debate as to who was leading the race. NASCAR was pretty sure it was either Ridley or Bobby Allison and there was a hasty check of the scorecards to try to determine who was winning. A decision was made that it was Ridley and he was given the checkered flag. Allison's team disputed the win, and the scorecards were checked yet again. While admitting they could not be certain, NASCAR announced that Ridley's victory would stand.
Not to take anything away from Ridley but that race has significance that goes beyond his only victory. His car owner Junie Donlavey has been involved in NASCAR racing for 38 years, and that day in Dover remains to date the only victory for the team.
Donald Thomas - How much more controversial can a win be than for even NASCAR to have it listed incorrectly in the record books? Is such a thing possible? According to Greg Fielden, the leading authority on NASCAR history it is, and that win is just one of many major inaccuracies in NASCAR's official records. Fielden's argument is convincing in the case of Donald Thomas' only Grand National win. Donald was the younger brother of early NASCAR legend and two time champion Herb Thomas. The younger of the racing Thomas brothers started driving Grand National races at the tender age of 18. The incident in question took place at the penultimate race of the 1952 season, held at the notoriously tough one mile dirt track in Atlanta, Georgia, which went by the name of Lakewood Speedway. Herb Thomas was still fighting gamely for the title, though by that point Tim Flock all but had a lock on the championship. Donald Thomas grabbed the pole that day, with his brother Herb starting beside him. Herb took the advantage at the start of the race, and held onto the lead for most of the event, battling with Donald and Lee Petty. Then on lap 86, he broke an axle and skidded to a stop in turn 2. At that point Herb jumped out of his car, and signaled wildly for Donald to stop. When Donald stopped, Herb ordered him out of the car, climbed in himself (the cars had working doors in those days) and took off, still leading the race. Naturally, the rules said relief drivers had to take the wheel in the pits, not out there on the track, for safety's sake. While Donald ambled off back to the pits, NASCAR officials were scratching their heads trying to decide what to do. Finally they threw a caution flag and made Herb go to the back of the longest line for the restart, which gave the lead to Lee Petty. Undaunted, (and UnDonalded) the Thomas Hudson came screaming back through the pack, and Herb took the checkered flag that day in Georgia. He was awarded the win, and the points. That's where things get confusing. Then, as now, according to the NASCAR rules, whatever driver starts the car in a race gets credit for that car's finish, whether he drives one lap or the entire event. Thus, though his older brother commandeered the car, Donald Thomas should have been listed as the winner of the race. Such situations have occurred numerous times in NASCAR history, and in every other case the driver who started the car was awarded the win. Thus Donald Thomas should be credited with that win, which would make him the youngest winner ever in NASCAR's top ranked division at the age of 20.
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