The 1990s were a decade of substantial growth for NASCAR. The very middle of that decade, 1995, showed off a lot of those changes. You had the launch of NASCAR’s third national series, the creation of a new offseason mini series, new drivers coming to the forefront and older drivers falling off. A real crossroads, if there ever was one.
Jeff Gordon’s Coming Out Party
In the then-Winston Cup Series, 1995 was the year when Jeff Gordon put his stamp on NASCAR. Entering the season, he had two career victories (the Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 in 1994) and was already viewed as the star of the future, despite only being 23 years old.
The season didn’t necessarily start all that great, though. Gordon led 61 laps in the Daytona 500, but ended up a lap down in 22nd after a bad pit stop under yellow and a cut tire under green with less than 30 laps to go. He followed that up with wins at Rockingham Speedway (in the final 500-mile race there) and Atlanta Motor Speedway, along with a DNF at Richmond Raceway.
It took until the spring short track for Gordon to truly come to life. After crashing out at Darlington Raceway, Gordon won the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, then finished no worse than third in the next four races. He had taken a share of the points lead after Talladega, but Dale Earnhardt earning his one career road course win and Mark Martin finishing second and leading the most laps dropped him to third.
A suspension failure in the Coca-Cola 600 dropped Gordon to fourth in points. For the next four months from that point, Gordon finished out of the top 10 only once. In that race, the UAW-GM Teamwork 500 at Pocono Raceway, Gordon was leading late when he missed a shift on the final restart and dropped to 16th.
1995 ultimately ended up as the only points battle between Gordon and Earnhardt. Earnhardt led early in the season, but lost the advantage at Pocono to Sterling Marlin. Statistically, 1995 is Marlin’s best season in the Cup Series, averaging better than a 10th-place finish for the year. This includes his injury-shortened 2002 season.
Gordon took the points lead for good from Marlin at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. Gordon beat out Earnhardt to take his first Southern 500 victory in September. That gave him a 217-point lead over Marlin. Earnhardt took second in points from Marlin the next weekend in Richmond, but he was now 276 points back.
After finishing third at North Wilkesboro in late September, Gordon had a 302-point lead over Earnhardt with four races remaining after earning seven wins. From that point on, Gordon more or less took it easy to win his first championship. That said, he did nearly everything possible to blow that lead over the final few weeks.
Engine woes at Charlotte resulted in a 30th-place finish for Gordon, while Earnhardt came from the rear to finish second. Earnhardt kept the pressure on, while Gordon struggled in Rockingham. A fifth-place finish in Phoenix meant that Gordon entered Atlanta with a 147-point lead. In match play golf, this is the equivalent of a dormie situation. Your opponent (in this case, Earnhardt) must win the hole in order to beat him. Hendrick Motorsports even attempted to groove the situation even more in Gordon’s favor by entering a fourth car, the No. 58 Chevrolet for Jimmy Horton. Horton got in the race, then was seriously injured in the 500-kilometer ARCA race. Jeff Purvis, who had failed to qualify for the race in Phoenix Racing’s Jackaroo-sponsored No. 44, ended up driving in his place.
Basically, all Gordon had to do to clinch the title was for one driver to drop out, or for Gordon to lead a lap. Gordon led a lap during a round of green-flag pit stops and that was all that necessary to give him his first championship. As for Earnhardt, he did everything he had to do. He led the most laps (268 of 328) and won the race. The final points margin was only 34, but given Gordon’s performance in 1995, it was much greater than that.
The rest is history. Over the next four years, Gordon won 40 races and won two more championships (1997 and 1998). This is the most dominant stretch in NASCAR’s Modern Era.
The Fall of Darrell Waltrip
The NAPA 500 at Atlanta, where Jeff Gordon clinched the championship, also just so happened to be the 59th and final time that Darrell Waltrip led the field to green in a Cup race. While Jeff Gordon was clearly on the rise, this particular year was effectively the end of Waltrip running competitively.
The season started out with mechanical issues. Waltrip blew engines in two of the first four races and had additional mechanical issues in the Daytona 500 that left him way behind. Over the next few weeks, he recovered significantly.
The short tracks were his strength. A seventh-place finish at Richmond got things going. Then, much like with Gordon, things really picked up in the short track swing. A strong third-place run at Bristol kicked things off. A top 10 at North Wilkesboro was followed by what could have been a race-winning day at Martinsville.
That day, Waltrip led 146 laps in what ended up being a rain-shortened event. Unfortunately, this was the last Cup race that was scheduled to be aired via tape delay on television. As a result, most of the laps that Waltrip led occurred while ESPN was aired the second day of the NFL Draft. They ended up joining the race during the rain delay once the draft coverage ended.
A tactical mistake saw Waltrip stay out after the rain delay when everyone else pitted. That put him in the lead for a bit after the race restarted, but he eventually fell back and got lapped. A yellow allowed him to get back on the lead lap and get fresh tires, but the race ended before he could get higher than fourth.
Talladega saw Waltrip run towards the front of the field. The leaders ran away from the field to settle things among themselves, something that is unheard of today. Waltrip ended up fourth at the finish and moved himself up to 10th in points.
Then, everything came apart. First, he broke his transmission at Sears Point, finishing 35th. That dropped him back to 16th in the championship standings.
In the Winston Select at Charlotte, Waltrip had a legitimate chance to win. He started on the front row for the final segment with Gordon. However, Earnhardt entered the chat and made it three-wide on the backstretch.
Waltrip and Earnhardt ended up splitting Gordon and had a battle for the lead between themselves. Then, Earnhardt came up the track. The result was painful.
Waltrip suffered a torn rotator cuff in the crash. While he did not miss any races due to the crash, he did require relief in the next couple of races from Jimmy Hensley. Those events generally did not go well, especially at Pocono, when he blew his engine on the second lap of the race.
Waltrip wrote in his autobiography, DW: A Lifetime Going Around in Circles, that morale suffered at his team during his recovery. At least one of his crewmembers was poached by another team. Others resigned. By the time Waltrip was 100% again, he says that he “…had lost most of my best people. A season that had started so well ended in shambles.”
There were some bright spots for Waltrip in the second half of the year. In addition to the Atlanta pole, Waltrip had a strong fourth-place finish in the infamous Goody’s 500 at Bristol in August. Other than that, the remainder of the year was marked by mediocre runs and a bunch of DNFs. What was a promising year ended with Waltrip 19th in points and looking at a bleak future.
Waltrip wrote in his aforementioned book after 1995, Western Auto told him that they were going to leave the team at the end of 1996. He was able to convince them to stay through 1997 by pitching a 25th anniversary celebration that would see the team run a series of throwback schemes based on his previous cars (for those wondering, they were based on his Gatorade, Pepsi Challenger, Mountain Dew, Tide and Budweiser schemes) and a special chrome scheme in addition to the regular livery (by that time, Western Auto had become Parts America ahead of being swallowed up by Advance Auto Parts).
Truthfully, the damage had been done to Waltrip’s career. After 1995, Waltrip made 151 more starts in Cup. He had two more top five finishes (fifths at Sonoma in 1997 and Fontana in 1998), eight top 10s and 14 DNQs over his final five years.
The Dawn of the SuperTrucks
After a series of exhibitions, 1995 was the first year for what is now known as the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Sears, via their Craftsman tools division, served as the presenting sponsor of the series, known for only this year (thankfully) as the NASCAR SuperTrucks Series by Craftsman. An interesting 20-race schedule was put together featuring 11 events west of the Mississippi River and 15 of the 20 events on short tracks. A number of the markets visited (Seattle, Portland, Bakersfield, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky) did not have other major races.
The series was pitched to NASCAR originally by a group of team owners that raced Trophy Trucks in SCORE desert racing. After positive reactions to race trucks and a series of exhibitions out west, NASCAR gave the series the green light.
In an attempt to keep costs down, a series of rules were instituted. Likely the most recognizable was that there were no live pit stops. Instead, there would be a halftime break where tires could be changed and adjustments made. Such a setup opened the series up to venues that were ill-suited for live pit stops, like Tucson Raceway Park (now Tucson Speedway), Portland Speedway and Flemington Speedway in New Jersey.
Teams in the series, at first, were a hodgepodge of operations. Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports formed full-time efforts. Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine and Ernie Irvan formed teams. Teams like Venable Racing and Ultra Motorsports came out of desert racing. ARCA and Winston West teams moved up into the new series, while some teams that competed in late models entered as well. Truck count was fairly healthy, especially later in the year.
The stars of the series in 1995 were generally older veterans of short track racing. Mike Skinner, the series’ inaugural champion, had previously been known as a journeyman racer. Prior to 1995, he’d competed in 10 Cup races and seven Busch Grand National events. The previous year, he’d run five Busch races for a small team with Kentucky Fried Chicken sponsorship, but failed to finish all of them. With RCR, Skinner came out like gangbusters, winning eight races, finishing out of the top 10 only twice and winning half of the poles.
Earnhardt plucked Ron Hornaday Jr. out of Winston West and the Featherlite Southwest Tour to drive his No. 16. The team struggled with sponsorship, but he eventually tallied six victories, 10 top five and 14 top 10s.
Jack Sprague started the year with Griffin Racing, a team that had originally run Gary Balough during the exhibition races. Sprague was consistent there, earning one top five and 10 top-10 finishes before moving to Hendrick Motorsports starting at Flemington. The two top fives he earned there were only a prelude of what was to come in the future.
Butch Miller was tapped by Liberty Racing to drive their Raybestos Ford after spending the previous few years splitting time between Busch Grand National, Cup and the American Speed Association (ASA). He ran well and earned his only victory in a near dead heat with Skinner at Colorado National Speedway.
Other notables included veteran racer Joe Ruttman, who had been in and out of Cup in recent years, Bill Sedgwick, who inherited the SPEARS No. 75 when Earnhardt tapped Hornaday and Rick Carelli.
Thanks to existing TV exposure, the series had a group of already somewhat recognizable drivers to race from day one. In addition, NASCAR made a point to expand their broadcast deals to include Busch Grand National and the new SuperTrucks for 1995. As a result, the series got over-the-air TV exposure for three races (Mesa Marin No. 1, Milwaukee and Colorado). In 1995, that helped a series far more than it would today.
While the series was definitely top heavy in it’s first year (only five regulars visited victory lane all year and Skinner won so many poles that a short-lived invert was instituted), the foundation for a very competitive series had been laid. 1996 saw more of a good thing as a number of races were added. Many of the existing events were lengthened as well.
The Death of the Swarm
In the 1980s, General Motors truly believed that the V6 engine was going to be the powerplant of the future. This reality was more or less forced on them due to the strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that were instituted on the automotive industry in the wake of the oil crisis of the 1970s. By 1985, automakers were required to meet a standard of 27.5 miles per gallon in passenger cars.
That number was very difficult to reach using V8 engines. As a result, the 1980s were a time of downsizing, not just for cars themselves, but for engines. If you’ve ever seen the retro reviews posted on YouTube from the early years of MotorWeek, you’ll understand. Nothing quite like a Chevrolet Camaro with a four-cylinder “Iron Duke” engine pumping out under 100 horsepower or a V8 engine putting out 145 horsepower (this was the standard engine in the Z28 in 1982).
The V6 engine was seen as a compromise, and the Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick divisions took the lead with it. In sports car racing, if you wanted factory support for quite a few years, you had to run a V6 engine.
The move toward V6 engines in the Busch Grand National Series began in earnest in 1986. This was combined with a move toward downsized cars as well. For the majority of teams at the time, this meant the Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, Pontiac 6000 and Oldsmobile Ciera. NASCAR encouraged the switch to the V6 engine by saddling teams that did not make the switch with extra weight. The rare teams that ran Fords, like Mark Martin’s team in 1987, were handicapped (they didn’t have a V6 engine eligible to run in the series for a couple of years).
By the early-to-mid 1990s, costs were rising for the relatively high-revving V6 engines, and the notion of the V6 conquering the V8 had not panned out. In the interest of cutting costs, the move was made to switch to V8 engines with 9.5:1 compression ratio. This kept car count fairly high and allowed the series to flourish for the rest of the 1990s.
V6 engines were still legal in Busch Grand National competition in 1995, but were sparingly used. Randy Porter ran one early in the season and had some success. Brad Teague used one as well. Given the lower costs, most teams made the switch pretty quickly. By this point, the V6 was out of most late model racing outside of ASA. You had to go there if you wanted that type of racing. From here on in, it was throaty engines or go home in stock car racing.
Also, the Busch schedule was cut to 26 races after both Martinsville races and the second Hickory race were cut. Orange County Speedway (Rougemont, N.C.) was originally on the schedule, but it was cancelled. Nashville Speedway USA (now Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville) returned after six years absent, while the season ended at the then-new Homestead Motorsports Complex (now Homestead-Miami Speedway). Essentially, the move toward primarily supporting Cup was nearly complete. Of the 26 races, 16 were support races to Cup, up from 13 of 31 in 1991. Short track races were down to nine from 14 three years earlier.
The season itself saw a competitive championship race. Johnny Benson claimed the title with a consistent campaign. Benson won only two races (Atlanta and Hickory) while tallying a series-high 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes. He clinched the title in the second-to-last race of the year at Rockingham.
The final margin was 404 points over Chad Little, who won six races. Little won the first two events of the year (Daytona and Rockingham), earned the plate sweep by winning at Talladega and earned wins at Charlotte, Loudon and South Boston. However, he also blew two engines and crashed out of three other races. That lack of consistency cost Little the title.
NASCAR Squashes Pit Stop Revolution
Pit stop-wise, 1995 will be best remembered as the year that NASCAR officially cut down from three tire changers to two over the wall. This cut the over-the-wall crew from eight men to seven. Pit stop times fell off a few seconds as a result. Practice brought the times right back where they were before the change within a couple of years.
At Bristol in August, KEL Racing tried something out that has never been attempted since. The team actually attached air canisters to their tire changers during the Food City 250. This was the result.
Using this setup would eliminate the possibility of running over your own air hose on pit stops. It was also not cleared with NASCAR ahead of time. Upon seeing ESPN’s footage, the canisters were banned. A similar move was briefly legalized in the FIA GT1 World Championship nearly a decade ago before being banned there as well.
In 1993, the World of Outlaws created a Winter Heat Series at the now-closed Manzanita Speedway near Phoenix. This was a relatively popular way to have major racing toward the end of the year.
At the time, Tucson Raceway Park was owned by International Speedway Corporation (ISC). They had placed Brian France in charge of track operations, who saw the draw for Winter Heat at Manzanita and wanted something similar in Tucson.
In 1994, NASCAR organized the first of what ended up being five Winter Heat Series at Tucson Raceway Park. The first year saw seven races. Three were exhibitions for the then-upcoming NASCAR SuperTrucks Series by Craftsman, the first full length races for the trucks. Previous exhibitions had generally been 20-lap sprints, but these races were 200 laps.
The Trucks were joined by the Featherlite Southwest Tour for a short series of races. In addition, Winston West held its 1995 season opener as part of Winter Heat.
The races were generally held in front of large crowds and were quite competitive. At the time, there was very little motorsports programming during the offseason. The series turned out to be an excellent way for race fans to get their racing fix.
In addition, the spotlight was turned on a number of up-and-coming and veteran racers that didn’t get all that much coverage. Winter Heat coincided with Kevin Harvick’s time in the Southwest Tour. Some of his earliest national exposure as a driver was there. Later on, drivers such as Greg Biffle came to prominence.
All of the Winter Heat events were televised live. Originally, the events aired on TNN, but moved to ESPN2 after the first couple of years. Benny Parsons infamously sold Jack Roush on the racing skills of Biffle after his Winter Heat performances in his own equipment.
By all indications, Winter Heat was a success for West Coast Racing. What is now Tucson Speedway was never more visible than it was during the Winter Heat years. Drivers that competed there were able to advance to the highest levels of the sport, and a good time was had by all.
From here on in, NASCAR continued to develop into the monolith we know today. In 1995, there were already multi-car teams in Cup. Hendrick Motorsports had three full-time teams, while Roush Racing ran two. Junior Johnson, in his final year as an owner, had two teams (No. 11 for Brett Bodine and No. 27 for a combination of Loy Allen Jr. and Elton Sawyer). SABCO Racing sort of had two (the No. 40 was more or less run by Dick Brooks at the time). The other teams were single-car operations.
By 1999, there were 10 teams running multiple cars full-time. These teams comprised 24 cars by themselves. Two more (Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Bill Davis Racing) ran a second car part-time. SABCO had a part-time third car, while Roush had a part-time sixth car.
Essentially, everything became far more centralized. That not only affected the on-track product, but life in general. In the past, race teams were not clustered as close together as they are today. You’ve probably read about how people in the industry today are constantly around each other. It’s basically incestuous. Even if you have a life away from the track, seemingly everyone you see has some kind of tie to the industry.
For people like Kenny Wallace, that’s part of the reason why he left North Carolina once he stopped racing in NASCAR. On the Dinner with Racers podcast, Parker Kligerman described living in an apartment complex in Charlotte years ago with a number of other drivers and crew members. It’s as if the entire parking garage for his building was comprised of people working in the industry in some way, shape or form. The roots for all of that were sown starting in 1995. NASCAR would never been the same.