Dale Earnhardt is shown here following Darrell Waltrip in the mid-1980s. If a series of moves originally put together by Junior Johnson had actually taken place, Earnhardt would have been in the No. 11 entry. (The Don Hunter Collection)
Junior Johnson Very Nearly Changes The Course Of NASCAR History
by Rick Houston
The implications boggle the imagination.
Prior to the 1984 season, legendary team owner Junior Johnson was on the verge of hiring Dale Earnhardt to replace Darrell Waltrip just one season removed from their second consecutive Winston Cup championship. Johnson had a signed sponsorship agreement with Wrangler Jeans, and Wrangler officials wanted to continue its working relationship with Earnhardt, who had driven with the company’s backing for the previous three seasons.
That’s not all. Johnson also had a verbal agreement with Coors beer to sponsor a second car to be driven by Neil Bonnett beginning in 1984. Either move could very well have changed the course of NASCAR history in a major way, and only an offer from Coors rival Budweiser that Johnson couldn’t refuse prevented them from becoming reality.
The revelations were made by Johnson during the most recent episode of Spun Out And Half Turned Over, the podcast of Stock Car History Online, released Nov. 16.
Had the moves taken place, how might the sport have been changed? Where would Waltrip have landed … with Richard Childress, maybe? Would he have won a third championship, as he eventually did with Johnson in 1985? How would Earnhardt’s accomplishments with Johnson have put together with team owner Richard Childress, with whom he won six Winston Cup championships? Would they have been perfectly matched, or would the two distinctly strong-willed personalities have clashed at every turn?
Had Bill Elliott not landed Coors as a sponsor in 1984, what might his career have been impacted? He won the first race of his career in the 1983 season finale at Riverside, but without financial support, could his family owned team have survived? Would he have won the Winston Million in 1985?
The chain of events was set into motion when Earnhardt’s Rod Osterlund-owned team shut down midway through the 1981 season. For years, it’s been an accepted part of the sport’s lore that Johnson helped place Earnhardt with team owner Richard Childress that year.
There was more to the story.
“(Earnhardt would do) just about do anything I told him,” Johnson said on the podcast. “I asked him, ‘What about going with Bud Moore? … Let me see if I can get a break in my operation to where I can hire you, and I will.’ Well … he went down there for two years. I knew I couldn’t do nothing for two years, because my contract was that long.”
History shows that Earnhardt did indeed drive a Bud Moore-owned Ford in 1982 and 1983, scoring a total of three wins along the way. When that relationship neared an end, that’s when Johnson kicked into gear, and very nearly spinning the NASCAR universe into some sort of bizarre alternate universe in the process.
“At the end of the year (1984), Richard Childress was running Ricky Rudd and Earnhardt couldn’t go back over there,” Johnson continued. “I had two teams then. Well, I needed two sponsors. I put Wrangler in Darrell’s team.
“I knew the Coors people out in the West. I knew them pretty good, because I talked to them a lot … when I’d go to Riverside and stuff. I called them up and they wanted to sponsor Neil Bonnett, so I had my sponsors.”
According to Johnson, it was at that point when Budweiser offered him twice what he would have received from Wrangler and Coors combined. Waltrip stayed and Bonnett did come on board with the organization Johnson then co-owned with California businessman Warner Hodgdon, but both were sponsored by the St. Louis brewery.
“Budweiser calls me up, says, “I’ll give you twice as much money as you’ve got now to sponsor both cars,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Lord, have mercy … I’ve gotta take that. So I went to Richard Childress and said, ‘If you’ll go back and get Earnhardt … I’ve got a signed contract here you can have. You don’t have to go no further. You’ve got a driver and a contract and money to race with.’
“ ‘I called the guy that worked for Bill Elliott. He was hunting for a sponsor, and I told him what was going on with Coors. I did not have the contract signed with them. We (verbally) cut a deal, and I called them and told them I couldn’t take the deal and told them about Bill Elliott. That’s how Bill Elliott got them.’”
Waltrip won another championship for Johnson in 1985. Ironically, it was Bill Elliott who dominated most of that season and won The Winston Million in the first year of the program’s existence, all with sponsorship from Coors. Elliott would drive for Johnson from 1992 through 1994.
Johnson reflected on what might have been.
“Darrell did me a great job, and I ain’t saying that Earnhardt would’ve done a better job,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t ask for a better job than Darrell did for me. … Earnhardt would’ve been a more explosive type (driver). Everybody says, ‘You would’ve won a whole lot more races with Earnhardt than you would Darrell.’ But you’ve got to figure in that Earnhardt was harder on a car.”
The first two installments of the interview with Junior Johnson are included in episodes three and four of Spun Out And Half Turned Over, which are available at Stock Car History Online, gcast.com and iTunes. A third and final portion of the chat will be released Nov. 23.
Click here to listen to the podcast.