When the 600 molded a champion

I am sure everybody knows the story of 1985 in Charlotte and how my driver, Darrell Waltrip, tracked down Harry Gant and passed him to win the very first Winston All-Star Race which is known today as the Sprint All-Star Race.

Now back then, they ran the first Winston All-Star Race, believe it or not, on Saturday late afternoon after the Busch Series race (now obviously known as the Nationwide Series race). Yet even after a Busch Series race and most of the All-Star Race, we still had not yet hit the big news — and the controversy. That came after Darrell’s engine blew up as he crossed the start/finish line to win the race.

Looking back, I really think all that controversy has overshadowed what happened the next day for the running of the Coca-Cola 600. You see, Darrell Waltrip won that race to complete the sweep, but the story behind the story is Darrell almost didn’t even run the race because our team owner Junior Johnson was mad at NASCAR.

It all started during postrace inspection after the All-Star Race. Dick Beaty was the NASCAR Director of Competition at that time. Now you have to understand that Junior Johnson had put a lot of time, money and effort into building that special car to win the very first Winston All-Star Race.

So following the race, Darrell is standing there telling Junior how great the car handled and it did everything Darrell wanted it to. Now we had already qualified fourth for the Coca-Cola 600 in the primary car for that race. Junior turned and asked Beaty about scratching that car, entering the No, 11 that had just won the Winston All-Star Race and then naturally starting dead last in the 600.

Dick initially said he had no problem with that as long as the same engine that came out of the 600 car was put into the All-Star car and that we agreed to surrender our No. 4 spot and start dead last. So I got the team together, explained the plan and we began the process of swapping everything from the 600 car to the All-Star car.

Basically we were rebuilding the Winston All-Star car so that it could go the 600 miles required on Sunday. When it came time to close the NASCAR garage on Saturday evening, we left with the car about halfway completed and came back first thing Sunday morning to finish the job.

It was between 8 and 8:30 a.m. when Beaty comes back over to the No. 11 car and proceeds to inform us Daytona (NASCAR headquarters) had called and said we actually couldn’t run the All-Star car; instead we had to run the 600 car that had already qualified.

Junior Johnson was livid. Beaty had told us we could swap cars on Saturday, then roughly three-and-a-half hours before the start of the 600 on Sunday, here he was saying we couldn’t do it. I have never seen Junior Johnson that upset. Well, Junior being Junior simply said no. He told Dick that if that’s the way NASCAR was going to be about it, he and our team were withdrawing from the race and leaving.

Now Darrell and l looked at each other and were about to have a stroke. I mean c’mon, think about it: We were in the middle of the 1985 points race. Surely he wasn’t serious about loading up and going home? Well Junior calmed down a little bit and we assured him we would get the other car back together.

So Darrell, the rest of the No. 11 team and I thrashed — and folks, I do mean thrashed — to get the original 600 No. 11 car put back together in time for the race. We had promised Junior that if he would let us do this, we would go out with the original car that had qualified fourth and kick everyone else’s butt that day. That was the goal we set and we accomplished it.

I don’t think folks really know how close we came to losing the 1985 championship, which was Darrell’s third and final championship, right there at Charlotte Motor Speedway that May. That was on top of how close we came of not even winning the race because of NASCAR changing its mind and the heartburn it caused with our car owner.

To give you an idea of how close it really was — we literally rolled the No. 11 car up onto the grid as the national anthem was being played. It was totally insane how hard and fast we worked just to make it that close.

It was so hot that day and we expended so much energy just to get the car ready before it ever ran a lap in the race. When people talk about never-give-up attitude, I always think about those guys on the 1985 No. 11 team. Those guys responded to everything that was asked of them in spades.

They did such a good job of rebuilding that car that when the race started we didn’t have any issues of things left loose or parts falling off the car. We ran such a solid race and as mentioned, won the thing.

That was the year that Danny Sullivan did the famous “Spin and Win” at Indy, so come Monday morning, Darrell was on “Good Morning America” with the Winston and 600 car on the front stretch while they did a split-screen shot with him and Sullivan at Indianapolis.

It is an especially proud moment in my racing career. It still gives me a sense of pride for what we were able to overcome. Trust me, the odds weren’t in our favor. We were set up for failure. Any number of things could have happened either when putting the 600 car back together or during the race when maybe something wasn’t put back just right.

Also don’t lose sight of how long that particular race is. It’s the longest race on our schedule. As I mentioned, it was a hot May day. The burden of stress on everyone involved was immense. I think it was that race that molded us into what would become the 1985 championship team.

If you remember, Bill Elliott was still the most dominant car in our sport that year. He won all those races (five before the All-Star Race, 11 in all) but we stayed right there on his heels. What Charlotte taught us collectively was that we could handle anything thrown at us as a group. That weekend with two wins in two days and all the headaches in between gave us the confidence in ourselves that nothing was insurmountable. I guarantee you that we were the only ones in the sport that thought, despite how dominant he was, that we could and would beat Bill Elliott.