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The Greats

by Peter Gregoire
Five of NASCAR's greatest drivers ever take a look at how it all started.

Few can deny that NASCAR-style stock car racing has become the premier form of motorsports competition in the United States. While once merely a regional sport that received only grudging notice by the media, Cup racing has grown to become a truly national series that enjoys television coverage of every event on the circuit.

A large part of the newfound popularity in which the NASCAR series currently basks can, of course, be attributed to the close quarters action on the track and the visceral appeal of forty-odd racing machines as they hurtle by at triple-digit velocities. Yet, as important as the mechanical aspects of stock car racing are to its overall success, it is the drivers, car owners, and mechanics behind those racing mounts that have arguably contributed the most to NASCAR's emergence as the most popular form of motorsports in the country. And it is those often very colorful personalities the greatest drivers and most skillful mechanics to have ever labored in or under a racing vehicle.

Some of the racers will be well known to even the most recently arrived NASCAR fan, while others, perhaps, will be familiar only to those who have followed the sport since its humble origins in 1948. Each legendary figure featured here has contributed to motorsports competition in significant ways, and stock car racing as we know it today would not have taken the same path without their efforts on the track and along pit road.

It's a scene that catches you in midbreath. Moments into a USA WEEKEND photo shoot in Concord, N.C., five NASCAR legends have exchanged warm greetings and gotten down to business. Then, the significance sinks in. "It's starting to hit me," one observer says to another. "These are five of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Five of the very best ever."

And there they are, laughing about old times and giving each other some drivers-natured business, as if they'd never left the sport. There are a dozen Daytona 500 wins among them, and, as the 500 kicks off the Nextel Cup season this weekend (coverage beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), this crew has many memories to share:

NBC commentator Benny Parsons, a NASCAR champion who won 21 races; Bobby Allison, a champion and winner of 84 races; "Gentleman" Ned Jarrett, a two-time champion and winner of 50 races (and the father of current racer and one-time Cup champion Dale Jarrett); Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson Jr., the famous former moonshiner who helped pioneer NASCAR and won 50 races as a driver and 139 as an owner; and Richard Petty, aka "The King," the seven-time champion (a record he shares with Dale Earnhardt) and all-time leader in races won, with 200.

The five of them stroll into the photo studio one by one, and their reactions are much like those you see at high school reunions. "You doin' all right?" Johnson asks Allison. "You must be doing great. I'm seeing you pop up everywhere these days."

Jarrett apologizes for not bringing one of his original racing helmets to the shoot: "I went through the entire house, and all I could find were Dale's." Petty arrives last, signature STP helmet in hand and apologetic: "I'm sorry, fellas. I've been racing through the traffic to get here." And you can only imagine that, with these guys, "racing through traffic" may have been stated at its most literal level. Runnin' hard, after all, isn't exactly something they've gotten out of their systems:

  1. When you guys raced, the culture and the sport itself were so different. What was it like?
    Parsons: Everything was different - even the way you got the cars to the track. Back then, the cars got there in an open trailer or on the back of a truck.

    Johnson: And you had to put it on there yourself with your crew.

    Parsons: Right. You didn't have lots of team employees with fancy transporters. You didn't have drivers staying in their expensive motor homes apart from the fans. After we were done for the day, we'd leave the track and stay in the same hotels with the fans. You mingled with them. You went to breakfast with them.

    Johnson: Heck, they used to help you change tires! It was a sort of family-type way to race. You'd unload your car from the truck, and there would be a bunch of them there to help you get it off. But today, the fans are more like fanatics.
  2. Richard, you may have won more races than anybody. But the first race you won didn't turn out to be a victory after all - and your famous racing dad, Lee Petty, had something to do with it. Tell us about that.
    Petty: Yeah, it's a funny story. We were racing in Atlanta. Dad was racing a hardtop, and I was running a convertible. I was flagged the winner, and we were out in the middle of the track celebrating. Then, all the sudden, somebody told me that somebody was protesting the win. Well, it turned out that my dad was doing the protesting! He came in second. But he convinced the race officials that they didn't give him credit for one lap that he completed. So they agreed with him, and I came in second. Heck, I wasn't mad at him. Second was the best I'd ever done back then, so I was tickled to death with it.
  3. Bobby, you and Cale Yarborough took part in a skirmish that's widely credited with establishing NASCAR as must-see TV to this day - a wild fistfight that ended the Daytona 500 in 1979. It was the first-ever live TV broadcast of the Daytona 500. Do people still ask you about this?
    Allison: All the time. They show clips of it at every race, after all. The thing was, my brother, Donnie, got into a wreck at the end. I stopped by his car and asked if he wanted a ride back to the garage. Then Cale comes along and starts yelling that the wreck was my fault. But I was nowhere close to it.

    Jarrett: Well, he was mad about the first wreck you were in that day. What people don't remember is that Cale, Donnie and Bobby had wrecked earlier in the race.

    Allison: Well, OK, you're right about that. My back bumper ran into Cale's front. We wrecked and spun. There was little damage to any of the cars, but Cale and I got stuck in the mud. Later in the race, Cale got into the crash with Donnie. When I stopped by to help Donnie, Cale must have still been sore about the first wreck.
  4. At the time it happened, did you guys ever think this was a fight that would become a defining moment for NASCAR? Johnson: Well, the thing is, we had a huge captive TV audience. There was an East Coast blizzard, and everybody was snowed in.

    Allison: And the fight was a heckuva scene. When it was over, they fined me, Donnie and Cale $6,000 each for it. They've used our money to promote that fight to this very day. They've made a fortune off of that fight.
  5. And the sport has gotten huge in the process. But if you had to change anything about NASCAR today, what would it be? Jarrett: They have to design the cars so more drivers can pass. You have to keep the entertainment level high on the track. If not, all those fans that they have brought to the sport will go away.

    Parsons: That's true. But when it comes to building those fans, there are no shortcomings with NASCAR. They have done a bang-up job in telling the world about our sport.

    Allison: Yeah. [Laughs.] And they are still using my money to do it.
Ned Jarrett
Wins: 50
The 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was one of the wildest races in NASCAR history. With 44 laps left, Fred Lorenzen and Darel Dieringer were fighting for the lead far ahead of Jarrett. Lorenzen's motor expired, and even before he could get into the pits Dieringer's motor started smoking too. Dieringer continued at a slower pace to finish third. The race was won by Ned Jarrett by 14 laps, which is the largest margin of victory in NASCAR history. Championships: 1961, 1965
Daytona 500 wins: none
What he's doing now: In 1966, Jarrett was in the run for another championship when Ford announced that they were withdrawing from NASCAR. With that, Jarrett decided that it was time to retire at the young age of 34. Jarrett is the only driver to retire as the NASCAR champion. Jarrett successfully pursued real estate and business ventures. He is also a longtime radio host of the program Ned Jarrett's World of Racing on MRN Radio.

Richard Petty
Wins: With 200, Petty is NASCAR's all-time leader.
Petty was credited as running at the finish in his final race in 1992. He took his final checkered flag finishing in 35th position. After the race, Petty circled the track to salute the fans one final time.
Championships: 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979, also an all-time record
Daytona 500 wins: 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1981, also an all-time record
What he's doing now: Accessibility was his hallmark. In a sport, and a sports world, where big stars may not have the time to sign autographs or sign everybody's autograph, Petty made a point of staying until everybody got one. His work on behalf of his sport and his accessibility to fans are seen as crucial elements of NASCAR's transformation from the dirt tracks of the 1950s to the superspeedways and multi-million dollar sponsorships of today. Petty runs Petty Enterprises, for which his son, Kyle, and driver Bobby Labonte race.

Bobby Allison
Wins: 84
Officially Bobby Allison has won 84 races, placing him in third place on the all-time wins list, tied with Darrell Waltrip. Unofficially, Bobby Allison has won 85 races, and should be possibly be credited with 86 wins. The controversy lies in two races: the 1971 Myers Brothers 250 held at Bowman Gray Stadium (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), and the 1973 National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Charlotte, North Carolina.)
Championship: 1983
Daytona 500 wins: 1978, 1982, 1988
What he's doing now: Bobby was a car owner for numerous drivers from 1990 to 1996, most notably Mike Alexander, Hut Stricklin , Jimmy Spencer, and Derrike Cope. One of the sport's most popular drivers, Allison serves as an ambassador for NASCAR, making frequent appearances at fan events.

Benny Parsons
Wins: 21
Parsons raced in about half of the races between 1983 and 1986 for owner Johnny Hayes. Parsons final career victory came at the Coca-Cola 500 at Atlanta.
Championship: 1973
Daytona 500 win: 1975
What he's doing now: He began announcing as a pit reporter in the 1980s on ESPN and TBS while he was still racing part-time. After permanently retiring from racing in 1988, Parsons became a broadcaster - first on ESPN, and then with NBC and TNT in 2001. He received a ESPN Emmy in 1996, and the ACE Award in 1989. Parsons became a race commentator for NBC.

Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson Jr.
Wins: 50 as driver; 139 as owner
His drivers won 139 races, which is second only to Petty Enterprises. His drivers won six Winston Cup Championships -- three with Yarborough (1976-1978) and Waltrip (1981-82, 1985).
Championships: none
Daytona 500 win: 1960
What he's doing now: A Tom Wolfe article about Johnson in the March 1965 issue of Esquire magazine led to a 1973 movie based on the article and Johnson's early life, The Last American Hero (a/k/a Hard Driver). Jeff Bridges starred as the somewhat fictionalized version of Johnson, and Johnson himself served as technical advisor for the film. The movie was critically acclaimed and featured the Jim Croce hit song, "I Got A Name". One of the most successful owners ever, Johnson is also a winner in business off the track, in the country ham industry and other ventures.

Dennis McCafferty. Talking with legends. USA WEEKEND. Issue Date: February 19, 2006.

Grudge Matches

It is a stock car practice that has existed since Glenn Dunaway took NASCAR to court to appeal his disqualification from the very first "Strictly Stock" event in 1949. And the earliest post-race fisticuffs were fought by World War II veterans. Before you start getting all hot and bothered and take a swing at me, here are the top five NASCAR grudge matches of all time:


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