Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Donlavey, Ellington, Negre, and DeWitt: A History of Four Single-Car Teams

Clockwise from top-left: Junie Donlavey, Hoss Ellington,
Ray DeWitt, and Ed Negre 
Wesley Christian Donlavey, Jr., better known as “Junie,” passed away Monday in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.  A veteran in every sense of the word - from his service for the U.S. Navy to his leadership of perhaps the most prolific single-car operation in NASCAR history - Donlavey lived to see 90, the number his Fords, Mercurys, and Chevrolets carried for 45 seasons.

Donlavey is the fourth former NASCAR team owner we have lost in the last twelve days, joining Hoss Ellington, Ray DeWitt, and Ed Negre.

As the news broke, I looked through my statistics, wondering what else these men had in common.  Donlavey, Ellington and Negre were all former drivers, and all ran teams which operated more than seventeen years each.  DeWitt entered cars for less than a decade, but in that time managed to be competitive in both the Cup and Nationwide Series.

What I feel contributed to the longevity of all four of their teams was how few last-place finishes each of received in that time.

It is well-known that Donlavey earned just one win.  Fresh off his successful Rookie of the Year campaign, short-tracker Jody Ridley took the checkered flag at Dover on May 17, 1981, outlasting Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett in a dramatic finish.  What I was not aware of is that Donlavey’s cars finished last just 21 times in 863 starts.

Donlavey Racing’s first finish took place on July 4, 1958 when Emanuel Zervakis’ 1957 Chevrolet overheated after six laps at the one-mile Raleigh Speedway.  The next didn’t occur until 1971, when Bill Dennis’ Mercury broke the driveshaft at South Boston.  Donlavey’s team went full-time in the 1970s, and in that decade trailed just seven more fields.  His cars finished last in just three races in the 1980s, and in 1985 followed-up Ridley’s Rookie of the Year season with another for future veteran Ken Schrader.  When longtime sponsor Heilig-Meyers left the team in the late 1990s, Donlavey scaled back, but still ran as late as 2004, when Andy Hillenburg fell short of qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Like Donlavey, Raleigh, North Carolina’s Charles Everett “Hoss” Ellington developed young talent with his single-car race team.  Among his drivers were Kyle Petty, Sterling Marlin, and Dale Jarrett.  He also fielded cars for four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

After back-to-back last-place runs at Bowman Gray Stadium and Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in 1969, Ellington stepped out of the driver’s seat after 21 starts to become a full-time owner.  The result was a team that competed in 243 more races as late as 1988.  The team picked up five wins, all of which in the maroon Hawaiian Tropic-sponsored #1: four with Donnie Allison, who was one last-lap crash away from taking Ellington’s car to victory in the 1979 Daytona 500, and one with David Pearson - the 105th and final of “The Silver Fox’s” legendary career.

In those seventeen seasons, Ellington’s cars finished last just four times, each with a different driver.  Donnie Allison had electrical problems at Ontario in 1977.  Buddy Baker broke a flywheel after winning the pole at Darlington in 1982.  Lake Speed lost the engine on the opening lap of the historic 1984 Pepsi Firecracker 400 at Daytona.  And the late Davey Allison ended up with his first last-place finish at Atlanta in 1985 when the engine let go.  Both Speed and the younger Allison would go on to win their first races in the Cup Series.

If you saw the 55 car on the track in the early 1990s, there was a very good chance it was fielded by Ray DeWitt.  DeWitt began a partnership with longtime owner-driver D.K. Ulrich in 1990, looking to give USAC star Rich Vogler a chance to make his Cup Series debut.  However, following Vogler’s tragic death, the team returned in 1991 with future Truck Series champion Ted Musgrave, who narrowly lost Rookie of the Year to Bobby Hamilton.  Musgrave and what became RaDiUs Motorsports enjoyed moderate success for the next two seasons, but despite three 5th-place finishes, couldn’t quite find victory lane.

Other than the withdrawal of Vogler’s entry, it wasn’t until 1994, when Jimmy Hensley replaced Musgrave, that RaDiUs ever finished last in a Cup Series race.  That race was Michigan on June 19, where the #55 lost the engine after two laps.  However, by that point, DeWitt’s Nationwide Series team was starting to gain traction.  Current Cup Series spotter Tim Fedewa finished 10th in the 1994 standings, then jumped to 7th in 1995 after earning his lone series win at Nazareth.  In 106 Nationwide starts, the DeWitt team finished last just three times - all of them at Darlington.  Bobby Dotter finished last in one of the DeWitt team’s final starts in 1996.

Of this list, Kelso, Washington driver Ed Negre ranks the highest in the LASTCAR rankings, scoring ten last-place finishes to be tied for 15th-most in the Cup Series rankings.  Like Ellington, Negre ran as an owner-driver, but for much longer, competing in 338 starts over seventeen seasons between 1955 and 1979.

But as an owner, Negre’s cars finished last just two other times, both of which took place in 1975: Dean Dalton at Martinsville and Dick May at Dover.  The very next week after the Dover race, Negre put a then-unknown Dale Earnhardt in his #8 Dodge, resulting in a 22nd-place finish in the grueling World 600 at Charlotte.  Negre himself turned in a number of strong runs despite limited sponsorship.  Three of Negre’s four career top-five finishes occurred in his first three seasons on the tour during the west coast races at Portland and Eureka.  But as late as 1973, Negre still clawed his way into contention, finishing 5th at Nashville.  Negre’s team made its final start with fellow Mopar loyalist Buddy Arrington in 1981.

In all, Donlavey, Ellington, DeWitt, and Negre entered cars in more than 1,600 races, but finished last only 44 times between them.  In spite of running single-car operations with limited funding, all four still managed to fight for every position on the track, and as a result achieved the kind of longevity all teams still seek to accomplish.

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