Two weeks later, the memory of Matt DiBenedetto’s strong run at Bristol Motor Speedway is still fresh. Days after learning he would be replaced at Leavine Family Racing next year, DiBenedetto nearly pulled off a surprising victory in Thunder Valley. If not for Denny Hamlin’s late charge through the field in the closing laps, DiBenedetto would have scored a victory that could have altered the entire course of his NASCAR career. However, he headed to Darlington Raceway this weekend still looking for win number one.
DiBenedetto’s story, and NASCAR’s throwback weekend in Darlington, brings to mind the career of another journeyman driver, Hut Stricklin. Stricklin raced off and on in the Cup Series from 1987 to 2002, making the bulk of his starts in the 1990s. Like DiBenedetto, Stricklin had few opportunities to race in top-flight equipment during his career. He made 328 Cup Series starts and never found victory lane. However, Stricklin did come close on several occasions, and none more so than in the 1996 Southern 500.
Stricklin made his first starts in the Cup Series in 1987. By 1989, he was competing full-time. A native of Calera, Alabama, Stricklin was one of the last members of the Alabama Gang to make it to NASCAR’s highest level. Yet an association with the Allison family did not mean that he had an easy road to NASCAR stardom. Try as he might, Stricklin tended to wind up with the right teams at the wrong times.
For instance, Stricklin raced for Rod Osterlund in 1989. Osterlund had fielded cars for Dale Earnhardt when the Intimidator won his first championship nearly a decade earlier. Shortly after that, Osterlund had sold his team and left NASCAR, only to reappear with Stricklin for another try at stock car racing glory. In 27 races together, the pairing produced one top five and four top 10s. Stricklin moved on at the end of the season, and Osterlund’s NASCAR comeback fizzled out in 1991.
Over the next several seasons, Stricklin struggled to find a permanent home. He spent a few years driving Bobby Allison’s No. 12 car with future crew chief legend Jimmy Fennig on the pit box. While the team earned three top fives in 1991, Stricklin was fired mid-season the following year. He would spend the next three seasons driving for three different team owners: Junior Johnson, Travis Carter, and Kenny Bernstein. Stricklin became Bernstein’s full-time driver eight races into the 1995 season, posting five top 10s in 24 starts. But when the team shut down at the end of the season, Stricklin was on the move again, striking a deal with Stavola Brothers Racing for 1996.
The beginning of the season left very little for Stricklin and the Stavola Brothers to smile about. Through 22 races, their best finish was an 11th place result at Bristol in March. Heading to Darlington, the No. 8 Ford was 28th in points and there was no sign that Stricklin was on the verge of anything special. But that year at Darlington, 23 years to the day of this year’s race, Stricklin almost had his day in the sun.
Starting from the 10th spot, Stricklin worked his way to the front of the pack slowly but steadily. He took the lead for the first time just past halfway, moments before a caution came out for a multi-car pileup in turn two. When the race resumed, Stricklin held on to the lead, and he emerged as the dominant driver in the second half of the race.
But even as the Southern 500 wound down during a long green-flag run, the battle was far from over. Around 80 laps to go, the No. 8 team began to experience overheating issues. Then, Jeff Gordon began to cut into Stricklin’s lead. Stricklin and Gordon had battled for the top spot earlier in the race, and it was clear that the road to victory, like so many other races in the 90s, went through the No. 24 team.
Stricklin made his final pit stop of the afternoon on lap 300. Once the rest of the field cycled through the pits, Gordon came out as the leader, but it only took Stricklin a few laps to pass the No. 24 back and retake the lead. It looked like Stricklin was the man to beat once more, but replays of the No. 8 team’s pit stop revealed that nobody had cleaned the debris off the grille of Stricklin’s Ford. One crew member did spray the grille with water, but ESPN’s broadcast team wondered if that would really be enough to alleviate the overheating issue.
Stricklin’s crew reported that the overheating issue was no longer a problem. The biggest challenge was Gordon, who began to rapidly close in on the No. 8 as the run went on. Gordon tailed Stricklin for 20 laps as they worked their way through lapped traffic. With 16 laps to go, Gordon got a run off turn two and pulled even with Stricklin on the backstretch. By turn three, he had made the decisive pass. Gordon cruised to his third win in a row at Darlington, with Stricklin having to settle for second.
“It was still a good run for us,” Stricklin said after the race. “We’ll take second and build on that. We’ve been working hard all year and just trying to get in the top 10. It seems like we’re either at the top or the bottom, we can’t seem to be in between.”
Unfortunately for Stricklin, most of the rest of his time with the Stavola Brothers was at the bottom. After scoring only one more top 10 in the No. 8 car, he and the team parted ways after failing to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600 in 1998. Stricklin would hang around for another four years driving mainly for Junie Donlavey and Bill Davis, but he never came close to winning again.
Discussing his career in a 2016 interview, Stricklin felt fortunate to race in NASCAR and work with good people. His story of being a promising driver who never found the right opportunity is not unique. But it’s fair to wonder what his career might have looked like had a few things gone differently in the Southern 500 23 years ago.