Thursday, October 6, 2016

10/11/92: To date, Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s last-place finish at Charlotte 24 years ago remains NASCAR’s last Sprint Cup disqualification

SOURCE: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On October 11, 1992, Bobby Hillin, Jr. picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Mello Yello 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #31 Bryant Chevrolet was disqualified after having finished 15th, completing 332 of 334 laps.

The finish, which came in Hillin, Jr.’s 239th series start, was his first in 133 races, dating back to July 26, 1987, when his #8 Miller American Buick lost an engine after 2 laps of the Talladega 500.

Long before the current youth movement in NASCAR, where top-tier rides routinely go to drivers under 20, and 18-year-old kid from Midland, Texas made his Winston Cup debut on April 18, 1982, in the Northwestern Bank 400 at North Wilkesboro.  The #8 Buick that Hillin drove to a 21st-place finish that day was owned by his father, Bobby Sr., who made his fortune with his oil drilling company, Hillin Drilling (still in business today as the Hillin-Simon Oil Company).  On the pit box was crew chief Harry Hyde, who four years later would help another upstart, Tim Richmond.

In 1984, Hillin’s #8 was fielded by the new Stavola Brothers Racing Team, owned by realty partners Bill and Mickey Stavola.  With the Stavolas, Hillin earned his first Top 10 with a 9th at Bristol on April 6, 1985, his first Top 5 in the 1986 Daytona 500, and at Talladega on July 27, 1986, Hillin sped to victory, becoming the youngest NASCAR winner at 22 years and 52 days.

By 1986, Hillin had acquired sponsorship from the Miller corporation, and was teamed with 1983 series champion Bobby Allison.  While Allison would go on to win three races for the Stavolas, including his famous victory in the 1988 Daytona 500, Hillin was still searching for his second career victory.  After Allison’s career came to a terrible end at Pocono in ‘88, Hillin remained with the team for another two years, running alongside Mike Alexander, then Dick Trickle, who won Rookie of the Year with the Stavolas in 1989, and finally by himself with sponsorship from Snickers in 1990.  Unfortunately, Hillin’s 1986 season, where he came home 6th in points, proved to be the best of his career, and the Stavolas replaced him with Rick Wilson for 1991.

Hillin landed a ride with Dick Moroso for the 1991 Daytona 500, running a #27 car in honor of Dick’s son Rob, the 1990 Rookie of the Year, who died in a car accident the previous September.  Hillin impressed with a strong 7th-place finish in the 600, and ran with the team through Charlotte.  Curiously, this also put Hillin into his fifth and final field for The Winston All-Star Race.  Blue Max Racing, which ran the #27 the previous year with Rusty Wallace, was eligible to run the All-Star event, but had closed its doors after Wallace and his Miller sponsorship left.  Moroso acquired Blue Max’s spot, and Hillin finished 19th in the race’s field of 20.

When the Moroso team scaled back after the Coca-Cola 600, Hillin was invited to drive for Jimmy Means Racing in the #52 Alka-Seltzer Pontiac at Dover and Sears Point, keeping him 14th in the point standings.  He was then invited to relief drive for Kyle Petty, who fractured his leg in a wreck at Talladega, and raced SABCO Racing’s #42 Mello Yello Pontiac for eight races.  When Petty returned to action for the Southern 500 that September, Hillin sat 17th in points, having made every race.  Unfortunately, he didn’t pick up a ride in time to attempt the Darlington field, and he was absent for the next five rounds of the 1991 season.

Then, at Charlotte, Martin Birrane entered the picture.

The 56-year-old Birrane was a surprising addition to the Winston Cup field.  A businessman by trade, Birrane came to America from his native Ireland, where he raced sports cars and owned the Mondello Park racetrack, the country’s only international motorsport venue, in Caragh, County Kildare.  He would later own English racing manufacturer Lola Cars from 1997 until its closing in 2012.  During the 1991 season, Birrane looked into owning a stock car racing team.  He hired John Paul, Jr., fresh off a 25th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500, to make his first ARCA start at Pocono.  On June 15, 1991, Paul impressed in his debut, starting 5th and finishing 3rd behind Bob Keselowski and Ben Hess.  Driver and team returned to Pocono in July, where Paul finished 32nd after engine issues, then earned a strong 16th in the Budweiser at the Glen.

As summer turned to fall, Birrane looked to see what his team could do with a veteran driver.  “In John Paul Jr., I thought I’d gotten the best driver I could get who wasn’t already in NASCAR,” said Birrane in a May 3, 1992 interview with The Tuscaloosa News.  “He’s a lovely lad, a very good driver who’s won at Indy cars and IMSA and given a good account of himself in anything else he’s done.  But the Winston Cup cars were an awful lot heavier in comparison to what he was used to driving.”  So, at Charlotte in October, he brought on Bobby Hillin, Jr., or as Birrane called him, “an All-american boy from Texas.”

Driving Birrane’s all-black #53 Longhorn Steaks Chevrolet, Hillin earned a respectable 18th-place finish at Charlotte, missed the field at Rockingham, then ended the year 32nd at Atlanta.  Over the off-season, Birrane decided to sign his new driver to run between 15 to 18 of the 29 races in 1992.  His car would have a slightly new look as well, changing numbers from 53 to 31, and adopting a black-and-green livery.  With that, Team Ireland was born.

“I can’t wait until we win our first race,” said Birrane.  “It will be a fun, fun time in the winner’s circle with our international flavor.”

“I am very serious about what I’m doing,” said Hillin, “and I am saying exactly what I intend to do — become one of the top dozen teams which wins races.  And I am in it for the long haul.  With the backing of a major sponsor, we will be competitive.”

Hillin and Birrane began their season on a high note, besting 16 other teams to give the team its first ever Daytona 500 start.  Hillin finished 38th that day, eliminated in the tremendous Lap 92 crash triggered by Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin, and Bill Elliott, and would go on to make nine more starts with Team Ireland, plus one at North Wilkesboro for Cale Yarborough Motorsports, who had just fired driver Chad Little. He also served as relief driver once again, this time for Davey Allison at Talladega, where he finished a strong 3rd.  In October, Hillin returned to Charlotte, scene of his debut with the team and his season-best run of 1992, a 13th in the Coca-Cola 600.

Hillin, with new sponsorship from Bryant Air Conditioners, qualified 28th for the 1992 Mello Yello 500.  Five drivers missed the show.  Mike Potter, who attempted to get Steve Balough’s year-old #77 Buick into the show; owner-drivers Ed Ferree, Mark Stahl, and James Hylton; and 35-year-old Mike Skinner, who that weekend was driving Thee Dixon’s #85 Glidden Paints Chevrolet.

The 500-mile gauntlet was a three-hour green-flag affair with only three cautions, two brought out for debris.  Taking the provisional last-place finish was last-place starter Dave Marcis, who was making his seventh and final start for car owner Larry Hedrick in a rare ride swap (Jim Sauter drove Marcis' own #71).  Marcis’ #41 Kellogg’s Chevrolet broke the rear end after 57 laps, which would have handed Marcis his first last-place run since Bristol that August.  It also would have been the first for the #41 in a Cup race at Charlotte since Larry Pearson’s turn in the Hedrick car ended with overheating issues early in the 1991 Coca-Cola 600.

Engine faiures filled the remaining four spots in the Bottom Five: owner-driver Jimmy Means in his #52 Hurley Limo Pontiac, the fleet #2 Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac of Rusty Wallace, Alabama driver Stanley Smith’s #49 Ameritron Batteries Chevrolet, and the lowest-ranked Oldsmobile of Rick Mast in the #1 Skoal Classic machine.

At the front of the pack, the year-long championship drama reached fever pitch in the closing laps when Bill Elliott broke a sway bar, plummeting him to 30th after leading 10 laps.  With three races to go, runner-up Alan Kulwicki, who came home 1.88 seconds behind winner Mark Martin, closed from 144 points to 47 behind championship leader Elliott.  Sitting second in the standings was Davey Allison, who also had an off-day, coming home 19th.  But, back in the rear of the field, a different kind of drama had taken place.

Bobby Hillin, Jr. finished two laps down, but a strong 15th that Sunday, successfully backing up his 13th-place run at Charlotte in May.  However, in post-race inspection, NASCAR took issue with the engine in No. 31.  Officials found the car had illegal cylinders and raised intake ports, and promptly disqualified the car, classifying it last in the field.

Martin Birrane filed an appeal, saying he was unaware of the engine’s illegality since he’d acquired the motor - like his cars - from Richard Childress Racing (sound familiar?).  In a cruel twist, it was the Childress motors that made Hillin enthusiastic about the Birrane deal.  “I wouldn’t have taken on this task if we hadn’t been able to buy these cars from Richard Childress and work out a deal for the engines,” he said.  “I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t get the best equipment.  The best equipment I was looking for last summer had to be the Childress Luminas.”

NASCAR wasn’t satisfied and the penalty was upheld.  It marked the first time that NASCAR had disqualified a Cup Series car since 1973, when Buddy Baker’s #71 K&K Insurance 1973 Dodge was dropped to the rear after car owner Norm Krauskopf refused to let officials inspect the engine.  Outraged, Birrane closed his team, and Hillin was again out of a ride.

Hillin landed with Junie Donlavey Racing for the historic Hooters 500 at Atlanta, running a blue-and-gold #90 Wrangler Jeans Ford that resembled Dale Earnhardt’s “Wrangler Jeans Machine” of the late 1980s.  Sponsor Heiling-Meyers joined Hillin and Donlavey in 1993, but his 27th-place showing in points that year signaled Hillin’s final full-time season in Cup competition.  He drove for five more teams through 2000, when he made his 334th and final Cup start in the 500 at Bristol, finishing 40th in Melling Racing’s #9 Kodiak / Cougar Ford.  His final NASCAR start was his 115th and final NASCAR XFINITY Series race on November 7, 2009.  Hillin, still just 45, finished 23rd in MacDonald Motorsports’ #81 Dodge.  The car was sponsored by the Texas firm T-Rex Engineering & Construction, where he is presently the CEO.

*This marked the first last-place run for the #31 in a Cup Series race since March 26, 1989, when Jim Sauter’s #31 Slender You Figure Salons Pontiac, fielded by Bob Clark, lost the engine after 1 lap of the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond.  The number would not finish last again until Neil Bonnett’s 362nd and final Cup start on November 14, 1993, when he parked the #31 Western Steer Chevrolet (officially listed as engine trouble) after 3 laps of the Hooters 500 at Atlanta.

40) #31-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 332 laps / disqualified
39) #41-Dave Marcis / 57 laps / rear end
38) #52-Jimmy Means / 89 laps / engine
37) #2-Rusty Wallace / 128 laps / engine
36) #49-Stanley Smith / 141 laps / engine

To date, NASCAR has disqualified 30 drivers from Sprint Cup events (the 22 listed below were ranked last), including its first-ever race at Charlotte in 1949, when Glenn Dunaway’s win was handed to Jim Roper.  Hillin remains the last one ever penalized in this way.  As NASCAR continues to fine-tune its post-race inspection process, whether or not the practice will ever come back is anyone’s guess.

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