Thursday, February 16, 2017

2/11/90: Jimmy Hensley, Hurricane Hugo, and the 1990 Busch Clash at Daytona

On February 11, 1990, Jimmy Hensley finished last in the 1990 Busch Clash at the Daytona International Speedway when his #20 Crown Petroleum Oldsmobile finished under power, one lap down, after 19 of 20 laps.

The story of Hensley’s Clash appearance is the result of both the best and worst timing.  On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed into South Carolina, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.  The next day, activities at the Martinsville Speedway seemed a distant afterthought as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series arrived for first-round qualifying in the Goody’s 500.  It certainly was for Hensley, who that day left for work from his home in nearby Ridgeway to perform his full-time job of driving a fuel-oil delivery truck.

Such was the life for Hensley, a down-to-earth man whose calm exterior masked an impressive racing resume.  He made his Cup debut at the Martinsville track on April 30, 1972, when he finished 33rd for owner Junie Donlavey.  When he returned to the same track that fall, he finished an impressive 5th.  All but four of his next 21 Cup starts came at the sport’s shortest track, where he scored another seven Top Tens for various owners, including himself.  All this on top of a strong Busch Series career dating back to 1982 and his first of five wins up to that point.  Again, he excelled at the sport’s tightest bullrings, taking the checkers at Hickory, South Boston, Indianapolis Raceway Park, and of course, Martinsville.

That September weekend in 1989, Hensley sat 20th in Busch Series points.  After driving for four different teams at the start of the year, he’d picked up a ride in Dwight Huffman’s #70 Buick.  His best run of the year came at Hickory, where he won the pole, led 3 laps, and finished 6th.  That Saturday at Martinsville, he would again drive Huffman’s car in the Zerex 150 - pending, of course, the weather.  He had no plans to run the Winston Cup event and, in fact, hadn’t competed in the series since a one-off for Buddy Arrington 17 months earlier.  That all changed when he got a phone call.

While Hurricane Hugo missed Martinsville, it snarled-up air traffic, preventing several drivers from making it out to the speedway.  Among them was Dale Earnhardt, who was looking to expand his 102-point lead over Rusty Wallace for the season championship.  At the request of Richard Childress, Hensley turned around and headed back to the track, where first-round qualifying would go on as scheduled.  Quickly, the Childress team made preparations for Hensley to put up a qualifying time and get the iconic #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet into the show.

On the first lap, Hensley nearly wrecked, but managed to put together what he thought was a “pretty good” run the second time around.  Running down the backstretch on his cool-down lap, he suddenly noticed the other crews were cheering him on.  Hensley, one of the last drivers out to qualify, had put #3 on the pole.  “All I can say is when I brought it in, I was just all teeth coming down pit road,” said Henlsey. “It was the highlight of my career, just to drive the car, let alone to put it on the pole.”  When Dale Earnhardt finally arrived at the track, he couldn’t wait to celebrate with his relief driver.  The two shook hands with Earnhardt saying “You’re gonna be in the Busch Clash!”

Per the team’s arrangement, Hensley did not run the Cup race at Martinsville and handed the wheel to Earnhardt, who inherited the pole and finished 9th (Hensley was credited with last as a “did not start” for the same car).  However, since Hensley retained credit for the pole, Richard Childress arranged to enter a second car for him to drive in the 1990 Busch Clash.  That plan also changed by the start of the season.

By the end of 1989, Hensley attracted sponsorship from Crown Petroleum, which looked to expand their presence in NASCAR.  The sponsorship would fund both a full-time Cup and Busch Series team in 1990, both of them fielded by car owner Dick Moroso.  The Cup effort would be driven by Moroso’s 21-year-old son Rob, who won the Busch title after a tight points race in 1989.  Hensley would drive the Busch effort, earning the veteran his first full-season effort in the division since 1988.  Both would run identical red-white-and-blue Oldsmobiles with Moroso #20 and Hensley #25.  To sweeten the deal, Hensley would drive Moroso’s car in the Busch Clash.

“(It’s) like icing on the cake,” said Hensley of the Clash opportunity, “A lot of guys go for a long time and will never be in that race.  I drove one Winston Cup car last year for two laps, and here I am in the Busch Clash.”  Hensley earned the pole for the Clash by random draw, but kept his goals realistic.  “If I run 10th, then I run 10th.  But I do want to run good, and not for me.  I want to do it for the team.  That would really mean a lot to me to be able to do it for them.”  While Hensley drew the pole, his car, the only Oldsmobile in the small 10-car field, struggled for speed in practice.  Still, he looked to make the most of what would be his first-ever NASCAR start on a superspeedway.  Ironically, Earnhardt wouldn’t be in the Clash - Hensley’s pole was the only one the Childress team earned in all of 1989.

Starting alongside Hensley on the front row was Greg Sacks, whose Hendrick Motorsports-prepared #46 Chevrolet carried the green-and-yellow City Chevrolet scheme to be use in the upcoming Paramount Pictures film “Days of Thunder.”  Sacks, who earned the lone wild-card spot among 15 drivers fastest in second-round qualifying in 1989, was one of the consultants for the film, and he would run the car in two other Cup and Busch points races, often carrying bulky movie cameras for the film’s action shots.  Two more “camera cars” would log laps - unscored - during the 500: Bobby Hamilton in character Cole Trickle's #51 Mello Yello Chevrolet and Tommy Ellis in Russ Wheeler’s #18 Hardee’s Chevrolet.

Starting 10th and last in the field was Mark Martin, who debuted a new look on his Roush Racing Ford with former Hendrick backer Folger’s as the sponsor of his #6.  Tied for the most poles with fellow six-timer Alan Kulwicki in 1989, Martin didn’t stay there for long.

When the green flag flew, Hensley led at the stripe, but started to lose ground to Sacks in the outside lane.  Leaving the tri-oval, the car suddenly bogged down, shooting a puff of smoke from the driver’s side exhaust.  The gear lever broke off, jamming the car in third gear.  Running in tow behind him in 3rd, Ken Schrader had to react fast.  “Hensley took off real good when they dropped the flag and then slowed down real fast,” said Schrader.  “I almost clipped him but managed to swerve around and get in behind Sachs(sic).”  “I thought I was going to get run over,” said Hensley.  “The whole thing just broke off.  I couldn’t get it out of third gear.”

Hensley plummeted to the back, split on either side in the middle lane.  By the time the leaders entered the backstretch, he was barely out of Turn 1, hopelessly out of the draft.  Schrader disposed of Sacks on Lap 4 and proceeded to run away with the caution-free race.  All ten cars finished under power while Hensley lost a lap in Turn 2 with two to go.

The rest of the 1990 season was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for the Dick Moroso team.  Hensley scored a Busch Series win at Nazareth and rounded out the year 2nd in points, 200 markers behind champion Chuck Bown.  The final three of his nine career wins would come the next year.  Meanwhile, Rob Moroso struggled through his full-time Cup effort and in September lost his life in a traffic accident.  At season’s end, Moroso became NASCAR’s first posthumous Rookie of the Year, awarded the title over fellow Oldsmobile driver Jack Pennington.

Though he never ran a full season in Cup, Hensley remained a fixture in NASCAR, particularly at its shortest and most difficult tracks.  In 1992, he replaced Chad Little at Cale Yarborough Motorsports and claimed his own Rookie of the Year title.  It was Hensley who was named by Alan Kulwicki to drive in his place should anything happen to him, and he did following Kulwicki’s tragic death in a 1993 plane crash.  In 1995, he turned his attention from Cup and Busch to the new Craftsman Truck Series.  49 years young, Hensley made his debut in the series’ first race at Bristol, then the next year earned Most Popular Driver.  He soon joined Petty Enterprises, wheeling his #43 Dodge to two victories at Nashville and, of course, Martinsville.  The latter in 1999 was particularly sweet - John Andretti’s come-from-behind effort in Sunday’s Cup race made it a weekend sweep for the Pettys.

Most recently, Hensley competed in the 2010 Scotts EZ Seed Shootout at Bristol, finishing 6th in the field of 12.

*This marked the fourth last-place finish for Oldsmobile in the Clash and the first time since Donnie Allison’s #12 The 5 Racers Oldsmobile also came home a lap down in 1981.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #20 in the Clash and the only one until 2009, when Joey Logano’s Home Depot Toyota crashed after 4 laps.

10) #20-Jimmy Hensley / 19 laps / running
9) #15-Morgan Shepherd / 20 laps / running
8) #27-Rusty Wallace / 20 laps / running
7) #7-Alan Kulwicki / 20 laps / running
6) #6-Mark Martin / 20 laps / running

Glick, Shav and Harry M. Horstman, “Motor Racing Busch Clash: Just a Day at Beach for Schrader,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1990.
Keim, Bob. “Hensley polesitter for Busch Clash,” UPI Archives, February 10, 1990.
Macenka, Joe. “Jimmy Hensley Gets His Break,” Associated Press, February 4, 1990.
Pearce, Al. “Hensley Continues Streak of Luck Draws Busch Clash Pole Position,” DailyPress, February 9, 1990.

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