Thursday, March 3, 2016

03/01/98: Hut Stricklin’s electrical woes leave him last in uneventful Las Vegas inaugural

SOURCE: Spade Racing
On March 1, 1998, Hut Stricklin picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Las Vegas 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #8 Circuit City Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after he completed 150 of 267 laps.  The finish was Stricklin’s first of the season and came in his 256th series start.

The Calera, Alabama driver was competing in his 12th Winston Cup season and his third with Stavola Brothers Racing.  Stricklin had been competing in Cup since 1987, when he finished 28th in his series debut at North Wilkesboro, and was 2nd to Dick Trickle in the battle for Rookie of the Year in 1989.  He was winless coming into the 1998 season, but had finished inside the Top Five at least once for just about every team he’d raced for in Cup, including career-best 2nd at Michigan in 1991, when he drove for “Alabama Gang” patriarch Bobby Allison.

Bill and Mickey Stavola worked in real estate and asphalt manufacturing before they started their Winston Cup team in 1984.  Their driver was a 20-year-old Texan named Bobby Hillin, Jr., who two seasons later at Talladega became the youngest driver to win a Cup race.  Hillin’s ride in the flagship #8 was that year joined by Bobby Allison, who another two years later scored the team’s biggest victory in the 1988 Daytona 500.  Following Allison’s career-ending crash at Pocono and Trickle’s Rookie of the Year win in the renumbered #84, the Stavolas scaled back to running just the #8, which saw Rick Wilson, Dick Trickle, Sterling Marlin, and Jeff Burton - another Rookie of the Year - before Stricklin joined the team in 1996.

Through Stricklin’s first two seasons in the #8, now sponsored by Circuit City, perhaps the best finish for both driver and team came during the Mountain Dew Southern 500 on September 1, 1996.  Stricklin started 10th that afternoon and led a race-high 143 of 367 laps.  He was still leading with 16 laps to go, trying to hold off a fast-closing Jeff Gordon, when Gordon finally got by and took the victory.  It was Stricklin’s best finish since 1991 and the team’s best performance since Sterling Marlin’s runner-up in the 1993 Pepsi 400 at Daytona.  However, by 1997, the Stavolas began to struggle in qualifying, missing three races.  The team switched from Ford to Chevrolet for 1998, but again missed the field for the Daytona 500 and only ran 29th at Rockingham.  The next race was the inaugural event at Las Vegas.

Stricklin squeaked his way into the Las Vegas field, locking up the 42nd starting spot while eight other teams missed the show.  Starting 43rd and last in the field was Lake Speed in the #9 Cartoon Network Ford fielded by Melling Racing, having secured the spot since all past Winston Cup Champions made the field on speed.  By the end of the first lap, Bobby Hamilton took the spot in the #4 Kodak MAX Chevrolet for Morgan-McClure Motorsports followed by Ricky Craven, whose #50 Budweiser Chevrolet pulled a 360-degree spin in Turn 2 but didn’t hit anything, keeping the race green.

Despite his spin, Craven’s Chevrolet ran as fast as the leaders, and he soon dropped Stricklin back to 43rd.  Just 45 laps into the race, Stricklin’s Chevrolet had picked up a wrong-sounding exhaust note from what the crew believed was a loose spark plug wire.  He lost a lap moments later and went behind the wall for repairs.  He returned to the track around the halfway point, but the car still struggled to keep pace.  Having never lost 43rd since he lost his first lap, Stricklin pulled out of the race after running 150 laps, citing electrical issues.

There were a handful of spins in the race, but no accidents in a surprisingly-clean race.  Many of the remaining Bottom Five finishers thus fell out with mechanical issues.  Finishing 42nd, twenty-nine laps behind Stricklin, was Kenny Wallace in his #81 Square D Ford, who lost an engine on his Fil Martucci-owned entry.  41st-place John Andretti was black-flagged inside the final 100 laps when his #43 STP Pontiac burned a piston.  40th-place Dale Jarrett won the pole in his Robert Yates-owned #88 Quality Care / Ford Credit Ford and was still in the Top 5 when he, too, lost an engine going down the backstretch.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Steve Grissom, whose Larry Hedrick-owned #41 Kodiak Chevrolet struggled with handling issues and brushed the wall in the final laps.

Stricklin and the Stavolas parted that May after their fifth DNQ of the season for the Coca-Cola 600.  He drove for six more teams from the midpoint of the 1998 season through 2002, picking up a pair of top-ten finishes at Michigan, site of his first runner-up finish in Cup in 1991.  The first was a 9th in 1999, the only top-ten finish for Scott Barbour’s struggling SBIII Motorsports, and the other was a 6th in 2001, the 218th and final top-ten finish for the late Junie Donlavey and his iconic #90 Ford.  Stricklin’s 328th and final Cup start came in the 2002 night race at Bristol, where he wrecked and finished 38th in Bill Davis’ second team, the #23 Hills Brothers Dodge.  He closed his career with no victories but eight Top Fives, 29 Top Tens, and one pole.

Just one week after Stricklin left the team, the Stavola Brothers earned their 114th and final top-ten finish under surprising circumstances.  Fresh off his second and final Busch Series victory at New Hampshire, but with a last-place finish in his only previous Cup start at Atlanta the previous year, 27-year-old Roy “Buckshot” Jones drove to a career-best 8th at Dover, even besting polesitter Rusty Wallace.  The Stavolas fielded cars for Jones in seven more races that season, but were never quite as competitive in the four they actually made.

The last time both Bill and Mickey Stavola fielded a car was in the 1998 Atlanta finale, where Morgan Shepherd threatened for a top-five at his favorite track before he crashed hard in the final laps.  The next season, the #8 was free to be picked-up by  rising star Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Following the passing of his brother Mickey, Bill Stavola tried to re-enter Cup competition in 2009 with Stavola Labonte Racing, a part-time venture with Terry Labonte, but the team closed the following year after just two starts with a best finish of 22nd.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #8 and the Stavola Brothers team since June 22, 1997, when Stricklin fell out of NASCAR’s most recent inaugural Winston Cup event, the California 500 presented by NAPA at what is today the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California in Fontana.  Stricklin’s #8 Circuit City Ford crashed after 28 laps.

43) #8-Hut Stricklin / 150 laps / electrical
42) #81-Kenny Wallace / 179 laps / engine
41) #43-John Andretti / 196 laps / piston
40) #88-Dale Jarrett / 219 laps / engine
39) #41-Steve Grissom / 258 laps / running

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