A Monster of a Driver at the Monster Mile
This year marks a pretty cool anniversary for Dover International Speedway, which will run its 99th and 100th races in NASCAR’s premier “Cup” series. That’s one race in 1969, one in ’70, and two per year since then. The “Monster Mile,” once known as Dover Downs in deference to the horse racing track in the infield, has had its banking altered during that period and its surface changed from asphalt to concrete, but throughout its history, Dover has been considered one of the toughest stops on the NASCAR circuit, so maybe we should say something about those who have managed to really excel there.
Jimmie Johnson rules, of course, with 12 career victories, more than one third of all his Dover starts. That’s an incredible record. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison share second place in overall wins with seven each, and David Pearson and Jeff Gordon each own five wins. (If you want to start an argument, you can start with whether Kyle Busch’s 12 total wins – 3 in Cup, 5 in Xfinity and 4 in Trucks – means anything, but I’m only counting the top series.)
Nobody has posed for this shot as often as Jimmie Johnson at Dover
I don’t want to take anything away from any of these great drivers (including Kyle Busch), but I want to talk a little about Allison’s record and how it qualifies him as a serious contender for any discussions of who might be considered the greatest driver ever. Here are my thoughts.
Johnson’s wins are an incredible feat, achieved during one of the most competitive periods ever in NASCAR. None of the drivers of past generations faced the number of top competitors he did. But a lot of racing is about chemistry, the way an entire team gels into a winner, and Johnson’s wins all took place with Hendrick Motorsports and his future Hall-of-Fame crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Petty likewise won his races for Petty Enterprises with Dale Inman providing expert support. Gordon’s wins came in his Hendrick Chevy, albeit with three different crew chiefs – Ray Evernham, Robbie Looms and Alan Gustafson.
In each of these cases, something had jelled to help a super-talented driver rise above the pack.
Now take a look at Bobby Allison. For starters, his seven Dover wins came with four different teams: Holman-Moody in 1971; Richard Howard in ’72; Bud Moore in ’78 and ’80, and DiGard in ’82 and ’83 (when he won both Dover starts). Each team had a different crew chief, including the great Herb Nab, Bud Moore himself, and Gary Nelson, who might be said to have defined the crew chief job in those early days.
Put Bobby Allison in your car and you knew it was going to fly
Go beyond those wins, though, and you see that Allison drove for quite a few other teams over his long career, and he managed to win for just about all of them, with strong finishes at Dover, despite no checkered flags. Take a look at this:
n 1970 – Allison finishes second at Dover in Mario Rossi’s Dodge. (He had not driven in Dover’s inaugural event in 1969.)
n 1971 – After starting the season in his own car, he moves to Holman-Moody before Talladega and ends with 10 wins (in a 48-race season), including the June Dover race. When NASCAR schedules an odd short-track event in Houston, Holman-Moody doesn’t enter, so Allison takes his old Dodge out of mothballs and wins that event as well.
n 1972 – In the first “modern era” season, driving for Howard, he wins 10 of 31 races and finishes in the top 5 an incredible 25 times. The season finale at Texas World Speedway is the only event all season in which he does not lead a lap.
n 1973 – Driving his own car, he finishes second and third at Dover.
n 1974-75 – Not much luck at Dover in Roger Penske’s AMC Matador, but the team notches four Cup victories elsewhere.
AMC definitely was David going after Goliath, but Allison’s slingshot hit the mark a few times
n 1976 – Now in a Penske Mercury, he finishes fourth in both Dover races.
n 1977 – Back in a Matador, this time self-owned, he finishes eighth and ninth.
n 1978-80 – In three years driving for Bud Moore, Allison has two wins, three top 5s and five top 10s at Dover, along with 14 victories overall.
n 1981 – Driving for Harry Ranier, he finishes second and third at Dover and has five wins overall, along with 21 top 5s in 31 races.
Allison, in Harry Ranier’s Pontiac, duels with Darrell Waltrip at Daytona
n 1982-84 – Including the three Dover wins, this was an incredible period for a driver in his mid-40s. Allison won 16 races and had 45 top 5s and 63 top 10s – and the 1983 Winston Cup Championship – for DiGard. It might also be the period when he benefitted most from team chemistry, because Nelson was his crew chief through this period.
n 1985 – Robin Pemberton is now the crew chief at DiGard, and things don’t go well. Allison leaves to form his own team at mid-year and gets his best finish of that effort with a fourth in the fall Dover race.
n 1986-88 – Now with Stavola Brothers, he records his last three wins on restrictor plate tracks, including the 1988 Daytona 500 at age 50. He’s later second at Talladega. A fifth at Bristol is his best off “plate” tracks, and he’s 10th at Dover. Two weeks later, his career ends (and very nearly his life) with a horrible crash at Pocono.
When you read that record, you kind of think that, if Greyhound had started up a factory-backed bus team in the 1970s or ‘80s, Bobby Allison would have found a way to win in one of them. I can’t think of anybody else who bounced around this much (and we haven’t even talked about his early career, including that revolutionary Donald Brackens ’65 Chevelle I saw on its maiden voyage at Beltsville, Md.) and been so consistently successful.
Put Bobby Allison behind the wheel, and even this baby would be competitive
I’m all for making Jimmie Johnson the sentimental favorite this week, but I think we should stop and think about a Coca-Cola or Miller Beer-sponsored racer fighting for the lead.
For nearly two decades, such a scenario would have been playing out, and Bobby Allison would be in the hunt. I’m privileged to have been able to watch him do that – at Dover and elsewhere – for many of those years.
A winner by any standard
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Given the scale of Cup racing these days, the personal touch just isn’t all that possible, anymore, realistically. The thought of a couple of kids – like Dave Fulton and me in 1964 – hailing a just-out-of-the-race Ralph Earnhardt to come over to the fence and just talk with us – no autographs requested – is ludicrous. Today, you drop out, talk with TV and radio pit reporters, and then adjourn to the hauler for team discussions and cooling down.
We do lose something because of that. I was reminded last weekend at BAPS Motor Speedway where the PA Sprint Series was running. As everybody was checking in, a couple of “get well” cards also were making the rounds, one for a young racer (and college student) who had been seriously injured in a traffic accident, the other for another driver’s father, who had undergone major surgery.
Since that time, a driver not part of the PASS group has organized sales of decals to raise money for the accident victim, whose parents are incurring expenses staying close to their son. The other driver’s father forwarded thanks for his card, but his son said that dad’s long recovery would probably keep their team off the track in 2019.
The people involved in these stories care about each other, which strengthens everything, including interest in this grassroots racing series. Even at its highest level, NASCAR racing used to be like that, and it created fans the likes of which you don’t see, anymore.
I don’t know of any rules change that will bring back those “good old days.”
Zach Newlin battles John Walp for the lead in PA Sprint Series action at BAPS Motor Speedway. On the track, the PASS racers are all business, but elsewhere, they’re family.