In 1973, a brash, outspoken rookie named Darrell Waltrip burst onto the NASCAR scene, making an impact with both his brash words (which earned Waltrip the nickname “Jaws”) and his daring on the racetrack. Even as a rookie, Waltrip was vocally confident that he would someday be a NASCAR champion. He was right – he went on to win three titles in his brilliant career. But Waltrip’s career didn’t take off overnight; in fact, he wasn’t the 1973 Rookie of the Year. That honor went to Lennie Pond.
Pond did not go on to win three titles, although he has a win and fifth-place points finish to his name. Pond’s rookie campaign was nothing to sneeze at, either. He took home a top five and nine top-10 finishes throughout the course of the season – respectable numbers in the days when rookie drivers had to prove themselves in inferior equipment, often for years before being handed the wheel of a top ride. That consistency got him the rookie title over Waltrip, who took over the Bud Moore ride in the middle of the season but was never able to truly capitalize on the opportunity.
Pond only raced a few full-time seasons at the Cup level, although he ran a handful of races before his rookie campaign and raced at least a race a year until he retired in 1989. His last race was at Richmond for legendary car owner Junie Donlavey.
Pond’s best points season was in 1976, when he raced in all 30 races for car owner Ronnie Elder in a Chevrolet Malibu sponsored by Pepsi. In that year, Pond scored 10 top-fives and 19 top-10 finishes. The 35-year-old driver also had an average finish of just below 12th, all good enough for fifth in the final standings.
Pond ran a partial schedule for Elder the following year in an often-unsponsored car before joining car owner Harry Ranier in 1978. Pond garnered almost instant success with Ranier, scoring a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 and going on to win five poles in the No. 54 W.I.N. car. Pond’s best race of the year was at Talladega in midsummer. Pond started fifth and led 22 laps that day, including the most important one, taking the checkers for the only win of his career.
Born in 1940 in Ettrick, Va., Pond was not a big man, standing just 5’7″. Waltrip, who was both tall and brash, was certainly the better known of the two top rookies of 1973. Despite his successes, Pond ran mostly partial schedules in NASCAR’s top series. But no matter what, Pond can always look back on his rookie year in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series knowing that he was the best in class. You can hear it now: “And there was the time I won rookie of the year. Beat that Waltrip kid. Yeah. That was a great year.”
The moral of the story is simple. Without the Lennie Ponds, the Darrell Waltrips wouldn’t have anyone to challenge them and, ultimately, make them better. That’s History.