THE CASE FOR JUNIOR JOHNSON
By Rick Houston
Write the names down.
Bill France Sr.
They’re locks for the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. France founded NASCAR. Petty made NASCAR. Earnhardt brought NASCAR into the modern era. Pearson dominated NASCAR. If any one of these men are snubbed, the hall will forever be tarnished. Petty, France, Earnhardt and Pearson are the elite of the elite of the elite.
And so is Junior Johnson.
The first people to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame should be those who changed the course of the sport’s history. Junior Johnson is the sport’s history. He was one of the best moonshine-runnin’ bootleggers who ever lived, and making the transition to the race track was a given. There are those who might not want to trace NASCAR’s roots back to some backwoods still, but that’s exactly how it happened.
Johnson won 50 races as a driver, including the 1960 Daytona 500. It was during that race that Johnson is said to have discovered the draft. Driving an underpowered Chevrolet, Johnson found that he could stay with the leaders by tucking in behind them and riding in their slipstream. Would someone else have figured it out? Probably. But Johnson was the first.
Then, there were his contributions to the sport as a car owner. To a man who took pride in being the first to accomplish a particular goal, Johnson scored many breakthroughs. He was one of the first to introduce land corporate sponsorship for his team. He was the first car owner to win three championships in a row, with driver Cale Yarborough in 1976-78. Darrell Waltrip won the inaugural The Winston all-star race at Charlotte in 1985.
In all, Johnson’s teams won six championships – the three with Yarborough and three more with Waltrip in 1981, 1982 and 1985 – and 132 races.
Still, Johnson’s contributions to the sport go far beyond a list of firsts. Want somebody who changed the course of NASCAR history? Junior Johnson’s your man. Johnson was approached by officials of R.J. Reynolds in the early 1970s about the possibility of sponsoring his team. It took Johnson maybe 10 seconds to figure out that this was bigger than his team.
Just like that … the Winston Cup circuit was born. Had it not been for Johnson, how would the next 30 years or so have turned out for NASCAR?
Want somebody who changed the course of NASCAR history? When Dale Earnhardt’s team was sold out from under him in 1981, it was Junior Johnson who brokered a deal to move the driver to an outfit fielded by none other than Richard Childress. The rest is … well … you know. How would the next 20 years or so have turned out for NASCAR if it hadn’t been for Johnson?
Because of these last two contributions in particular, Johnson is more than a former moonshiner, star NASCAR driver or car owner. In these, Johnson was the King Maker. And he’s also a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.