Pandemonium and confusion reigned.
I know this is cliché, and I loathe that. However, there are few other sufficient ways to describe what took place in NASCAR’s Miller 400 on Feb. 23, 1986 at the old Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.
Two of the Cup Series’ biggest, most colorful stars—champions Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip—crashed in a wildly controversial wreck while battling for the lead with three laps to go. The incident enabled Kyle Petty to ride from fifth place into first and score the initial victory by a third generation driver in the circuit’s history.
To say the scene at the run-down old .542-mile track was chaotic is an understatement.
This comes to mind as the Cup teams gather again this week at Richmond for the Federal Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night.
With stars such as Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and others facing a last chance to make “The Chase”—NASCAR’s 10-race “playoff” for the Cup championship—could something similar to the brouhaha of ’86 happen again?
Quite possible, with millions more dollars at stake at the popular, highly-competitive 3/4-mile Richmond International Raceway than at the old track 27 years ago.
I have been writing about NASCAR since 1957, and that race at Richmond ranks among the most contentious I ever covered.
Here’s what happened:
As the 400-lap, 216.8-mile event wound down, arch rivals Earnhardt and Waltrip battled for the lead. With three laps to go Waltrip maneuvered his Junior Johnson-fielded Chevrolet alongside Earnhardt’s Richard Childress-owned Chevy in the first turn. Racing up the backstretch, Waltrip pulled off the pass.
But as the two sped into the third turn Earnhardt swung left in an attempt to regain the lead. He cut his move too close, clipping the rear of Waltrip’s car.
Both drivers careened hard into the track’s steel outer railing.
There was a deafening reaction from a crowd estimated at 25,000.
Somehow, Joe Ruttman and Geoff Bodine, running third and fourth as the leaders wrecked, were swept into the accident, too.
Petty found himself leading in the Wood Brothers’ Ford and took the checkered flag under caution for his first triumph in seven years of trying that covered a span of 170 races.
Kyle, the son of famous champion Richard Petty and grandson of a NASCAR pioneer, title-winner “Poppa” Lee Petty, was ecstatic but refreshingly realistic.
“I’m not going to tell you we ran good enough to win,” conceded Kyle. “We were fortunate. I guess some people are going to call our win ‘Petty Larceny.’
“I couldn’t see what happened up ahead. All I saw was smoke. I figured Dale and Darrell might have gotten into it. But not that Joe and Geoff had crashed, too. I couldn’t believe it!”
While Petty and the Woods contingent beamed in Victory Lane, Earnhardt and Waltrip and their teams exchanged, well, unpleasantries.
“I haven’t ever had a run-in with Earnhardt before,” said a fuming Waltrip, the then-defending Cup Series champion. “Everyone else has, so I guess he’s not choosy. He simply turned left into me.”
Countered Earnhardt: “I didn’t do anything to Waltrip that he wouldn’t have done to me. I tried to dive under him and didn’t make it. If I was going to wreck him, I damn sure wouldn’t have wrecked myself.”
Junior Johnson didn’t accept Earnhardt’s explanation.
“The move Dale made is an old dirt track racing trick,” said Johnson. “He saw his daddy do it (the late National Sportsman Division champion Ralph Earnhardt) on dirt tracks and Dale did it himself at them on his way up.
“Of course it was intentional.”
To a degree, NASCAR officials agreed.
Almost immediately Earnhardt was fined $5,000 for “reckless driving,” placed on probation and required to post a $10,000 bond.
Cup Series director Bill Gazaway said the bond was “subject to refund depending on how Dale conducts himself the rest of the season.” The season had 27 races to go. Earnhardt and Childress appealed.
“I’m taking the blame,” said Earnhadt. “I was just trying to win, and I hate that tore up both cars. In this sport, you win some, lose some and wreck some.”
NASCAR reduced the fine to $3,000, dropped the probation and rescinded the bond. Johnson was not mollified.
“What Dale did is no different than if he had put a loaded gun to Darrell’s head and pulled the trigger.”
Undoubtedly, there will be no gunplay Saturday night at Richmond.
But anger and controversy like that which erupted in 1986? With so much at stake, that’s very, very likely.