The 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season was one of a slow transition for one successful driver and not so much for another. The two would battle for the championship — and become involved in a very controversial, last-lap, multicar crash before the season was two months old.
By 1981, Darrell Waltrip had split with DiGard Racing Co., with which he had enjoyed successful seasons before the relationship soured and ended in an acrimonious split. Waltrip wanted to get away from DiGard to join Junior Johnson and Associates, already a powerhouse team that had won three consecutive titles with driver Cale Yarborough from 1976-78.
Waltrip knew he could win championships with Johnson, and he was right. In his first two seasons, he won 24 races and consecutive titles. As Waltrip’s tenure advanced, so did his acceptance and respectability from fans. In his earlier years the Kentucky native had been a brash, outspoken, witty competitor — even something of a smart aleck. Fans had never seen the likes of him. They felt he was a loud-mouthed egomaniac who disrespected established, veteran drivers.
But they admitted he had talent. And by 1986, with two championships to his credit and a calmer, much less vocal personality, Waltrip was slowly changing into a fan favorite. Not universally, you understand, but he was taking steps toward the elder statesman he would become.
On the other hand, by 1986 Dale Earnhardt was still the intense, unrelenting competitor he had been since he won Rookie of the Year with team owner Rod Osterlund in 1979.
It seemed that with Osterlund, the sky was the limit for Earnhardt. He won the 1980 championship and began the 1981 season with great optimism.
But it all came crashing down.
Late in ’81, Osterlund sold his organization to maverick owner J.D. Stacy, who had already spread money around in NASCAR by sponsoring as many as seven teams.
Earnhardt wanted no part of Stacy. He drove in just four events before he quit to join independent driver/owner Richard Childress, who agreed to provide Earnhardt cars for the remaining 11 races of the season in return for Wrangler sponsorship.
Earnhardt spent the 1982-83 seasons with veteran owner Bud Moore. They weren’t productive, largely because of mechanical and engine problems. By the time Earnhardt rejoined Childress’ more established, stable team in 1984, he was a disgruntled driver.
He spent two years trying to regain the form that had won him a championship. He did win again — six times — but in so doing, he intensified his often reckless driving style. That didn’t sit well with other drivers. And, by the way, it didn’t sit well with fans. While some appreciated Earnhardt for his devil-may-care methods, others disapproved greatly and let him know it during driver introductions.
Earnhardt was far removed from the vastly popular icon he would become.
Matters came to a head in only the second race of the 1986 season at the half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.
Earnhardt dominated the Miller High Life 400 while Waltrip struggled to make up a lost lap. Once he did so, he was able to make a slick move around Earnhardt with three laps remaining.
Waltrip never got credit for leading a lap. As he went into the third turn, Earnhardt clipped him at his left quarter panel and the contact forced Waltrip hard into the metal guardrail. Four cars were swept into the spinning, smoking mess. A wide-eyed Kyle Petty, who was running fifth at the time of the incident, managed to slip through the carnage to take the checkered flag under caution just ahead of Joe Ruttman. Driving for the Wood Brothers, the victory was the first of Petty’s Winston Cup career.
As soon as the race was over, controversy erupted. Johnson and Waltrip were furious.
“He just plain turned left into me,” Waltrip fumed. “I want to win as much as anybody, but I’ve never tried to hurt anyone to do it.”
Johnson said Earnhardt’s actions were no different “than if he had put a gun to Darrell’s head and pulled the trigger.”
Fans largely supported Waltrip and made their displeasure with Earnhardt known.
So did NASCAR. Minutes after the race, it determined that Earnhardt’s actions were unacceptable and fined him $5,000, required him to post bond money and placed him on probation for the rest of the season.
“What Earnhardt did is something that’s gone on for the last two seasons and it’s gone on for entirely too long,” said Winston Cup Director Bill Gazaway. Many drivers agreed with Gazaway and were very vocal about saying so.
For his part, Earnhardt said the incident was just a “racing accident” that was not of his making. He felt NASCAR was being unjustly hard on him and acting only on perception and not the facts. He appealed the decision, and after a meeting at Charlotte Douglas Airport, the punishment was reduced to a lower fine and the bond and probation were dropped.
Earnhardt had produced a letter of character signed by at least 20 people in Winston Cup competition — but only a small handful were drivers. Still, among many fans the feeling persisted that had his reputation been less volatile, NASCAR would have never treated Earnhardt so harshly so quickly. Many others said he got just what he deserved and the original penalty should have stuck.
Meanwhile, Waltrip emerged unscathed — for once.
Ironically, the two would scrap for the championship, which Earnhardt won by 288 points over Waltrip. It was the second title of Earnhardt’s career and, with Childress, it advanced what would become one of the most successful unions in NASCAR history.
Postscript: Years later, Petty revealed that while he was delighted to win the race, he would have been equally pleased if he had finished among the top five. Sounds a bit odd, but Petty said that before the race competitors had created a pool. For a price, teams could draw a piece of paper with a number on it from a container. If a car’s finishing position matched the number, all the pool money went to the lucky team.
And the winnings were considerable. When it came to gambling, competitors didn’t skimp.
With three laps to go, Petty got the word via radio: “You are in the money.” All he had to do was remain where he was for the final circuits.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Petty was involved in the race-ending melee but, fortunately, he was able to pick his way to victory.
“I was relieved,” Petty said. “I had to pretty much win the race to make about as much money as there was in that pool.”
Also in 1986, once more historians and statisticians clashed over the numbers. To Be Continued …
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.