Thursday, March 2, 2017

11/14/93: Neil Bonnett’s final last-place finish had championship implications

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On November 14, 1993, Neil Bonnett picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Hooters 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #31 Western Steer Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble after 3 of 328 laps.

The finish, which came in Bonnett’s 362nd and final Cup start, was his first since the 1989 Daytona 500, 174 races prior, when his Wood Brothers-prepared #21 Citgo Ford caught fire due to a loose oil line after 2 laps.

One of the most popular and beloved drivers of his time, Bonnett was a determined competitor and a popular television analyst.  Bred from the same southern bullrings as Darrell Waltrip and Jimmy Means, Bonnett made his first Cup start at Talladega in 1974, finishing 45th in a field of 50 for car owner Charlie Roberts.  The first of his 18 wins came three years later at the old Richmond Fairgrounds, followed by another at Ontario, the last for Dodge until 2001.  Some of Bonnett’s best years came with the Wood Brothers, climbing into the famed Purolator Mercury vacated by the legendary David Pearson.  He was also a quick study when NASCAR downsized cars in 1981, improving from two wins in 1980 to three in ’81.  He was RahMoc Enterprises’ only winning driver and was a strong teammate to Darrell Waltrip at Junior Johnson & Associates.

But the late 1980s weren’t so kind to the veteran driver.  A series of terrible crashes sidelined him for several races.  A terrible crash at Charlotte in 1987 cut short a season where he’d run 5th in points, aiming for an elusive Winston Cup.  He returned to score back-to-back victories for RahMoc in 1988, but two years later nearly lost his life in a multi-car pileup at Darlington.  Forced into retirement, but unwilling to leave behind the sport he loved, Bonnett became a color commentator for CBS and TNN.  Following in the footsteps of Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons, Bonnett was a gifted interviewer, earning him his own show, “Winners,” where he spoke with his fellow competitors.

For all his success, Bonnett always eyed a return to racing, and in 1993 seized an on opportunity.  After testing cars for his longtime friend Dale Earnhardt, he and Richard Childress arranged to have Bonnett return to competition in the DieHard 500 at Talladega that July.  It turned out to be the best and worst timing.  Best in that it lifted the spirits of a stunned racing community that had just lost the “Alabama Gang’s” youngest star, Davey Allison.  Worst in that Bonnett’s race ended with another terrifying crash that sent his #31 Chevrolet flipping into the catchfence.  While Bonnett was uninjured, it was unclear if the man from Alabama would race again.  That is, until Earnhardt and Childress came calling once more.

Earnhardt was on a comeback of his own, bouncing back from a miserable 1992 to once again battling for the championship.  After the penultimate round in Phoenix that November, Earnhardt had a 126-point lead on nine-time race winner Rusty Wallace.  With that lead coming into the season finale at Atlanta, Earnhardt could clinch his sixth championship before the end of the race not on his own actions, but on the misfortunes of those at the back of the field.  The magic number for Earnhardt to clinch was 60 points, or a finish of 34th (worth 61 points) or better.  Even if Earnhardt finished 34th and didn’t lead a lap while Wallace won while leading the most laps, The Intimidator would claim the title by just two points.

This meant Earnhardt would clinch the title if eight drivers in the 42-car field fell out of the running.  Without today’s Five-Minute Clock to prevent teams from repairing damaged cars, this was anything but a certainty.  At Atlanta that spring, exactly eight drivers fell out with the last of them, Mark Martin, departing after 225 laps.  Two-thirds of race distance was plenty of time for something to happen, and the Childress team knew it.  So in the days before the race, the crew tabbed Bonnett to help.

The plan was simple: enter Bonnett in a second identical Chevrolet for the Atlanta finale.  This second car, #31, would have the exact same setup and seat as Earnhardt’s #3.  That way, if Earnhardt’s car did not fire on the starting grid, Bonnett would climb out and Earnhardt would jump in without the need for extensive adjustments.  If Earnhardt’s car did fire, Bonnett would be instructed to pull off the track as soon as possible to make sure #3 only had to rely on seven more drivers to DNF.  The plan wasn’t unprecedented.  Childress himself made his final Cup start playing the same role for Junior Johnson at Riverside, parking a #41 Mountain Dew Buick to assist Darrell Waltrip’s own clinch scenario.

Bonnett’s #31 was funded by Mom ‘n Pops, a longtime associate sponsor of Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt.  The car closely resembled Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, forsaking the black-and-red scheme from Talladega for an identical black-and-silver.  Mom ‘n Pops had a logo on the rear TV panel while Western Steer logos covered the quarter-panels.  

There was one big obstacle: Bonnett was not at all guaranteed of a starting spot.  51 other drivers arrived to try and make the 42-car field.  But once again, the veteran’s experience spelled the difference.  Bonnett snagged the 35th starting spot with a lap of 172.237mph.  Among the ten drivers sent home was Clay Young, driving veteran car owner Henley Gray’s #62 Ford.  Young, who made two starts earlier that year at Michigan and Pocono, carried sponsorship from The Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The deal, which would run through 1994, was squashed by NASCAR, who forced the team to remove the decals before qualifying.

As it turned out, a third Childress car made the trip to Atlanta.  In Friday’s practice, Earnhardt spun in Turn 2 and destroyed the rear of #3, sending the team scrambling to a backup.  When everything shook out, the championship leader was left with a 19th-place spot on the grid.  Fortunately, Rusty Wallace didn’t do much better.  He timed in right next to him in 20th.  When the command to start engines came, Earnhardt’s #3 fired right up, and Bonnett prepared to make what turned out to be the final three laps of his career.

Starting 42nd that afternoon was Hut Stricklin, who was wrapping up his only season driving for Junior Johnson.  Stricklin’s #27 McDonald’s Ford began the year with a sterling 4th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and led 88 laps at Martinsville, but languished 24th in points.  Jimmy Spencer would replace Stricklin in 1994 and score the #27 team’s only two victories that summer.  When the green flag fell, Bonnett chose the middle lane in Turns 1 and 2 and began to fall back.  By then, T.W. Taylor’s #02 Children’s Miracle Network Ford and Rick Carelli’s #61 Total Petroleum Chevrolet had already slipped behind Stricklin into a battle for last.  On Lap 4, Bonnett pulled behind the wall, securing last place.  One car down, seven to go.

Though Earnhardt seemed unwilling to adopt a conservative approach, making a three-wide pass for position on Lap 2, retirements didn’t come all at once.  On Lap 20, Brett Bodine’s #26 Quaker State Ford broke loose in Turn 3 right in front of Wallace.  The championship challenger just squeaked by as Bodine collided with Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s #90 Heilig-Meyers Ford.  Both drivers were done for the day, though they weren’t listed as such for at least 17 laps.  Three down, five to go.

On Lap 30, Jimmy Spencer’s #12 Meineke Mufflers Ford spun off Turn 4 in front of the field.  Geoffrey Bodine’s #7 Family Channel Ford and Ken Schrader’s #25 Kodiak Chevrolet were collected in the ensuing pileup, and Jimmy Horton’s #32 Wheels Race Cards Chevrolet spun into the wall during the chain-reaction.  This time, only Bodine fell out.  Spencer and Horton drove to the pits and returned without losing a lap.  Schrader pulled into the garage and returned several laps down.  Four down, four to go.

On the restart, 35 cars were on the lead lap as Rick Carelli and Rick Wilson had lost one and two laps, respectively.  Horton’s damaged #32 pulled off the track after completing 46 laps, leaving him 38th and rounding out the Bottom Five.  Five down, three to go.

On Lap 85, during a sequence of green-flag stops, Ernie Irvan crashed the #28 Texaco / Havoline Ford, sliding hard against the inside wall.  Irvan managed to limp to pit road with the right side tires flat and the rear bumper caved-in.  He returned to the track and, after multiple stops, would somehow storm his battered Ford up to the 12th spot.  The next retiree didn’t come until Lap 106, when the third caution fell for Rick Mast, who blew a motor on his #1 Skoal Classic Ford.  Six down, two to go.

Under the Mast caution, there were just 18 drivers on the lead lap, and everyone from 30th on back was multiple laps down.  Mast himself was about to take 34th, but the four drivers behind him were still under power.  T.W. Taylor was five down, Rick Carelli eight down, Rich Bickle 31 behind with transmission issues on his #45 Bull’s Eye Ford, and the wrecked Schrader still plugging away, 33 down.  Though Bickle and Carelli would finally pull out with mechanical issues, they did not do so until after Mast slipped to 37th 28 laps later, meaning that two cars still needed to fall out well past the one-third mark.

Finally, it happened.  On Lap 142, T.W. Taylor’s #02 backed into the Turn 1 wall, followed on Lap 159, when Wally Dallenbach, Jr.’s #16 Keystone Beer Ford slammed head-on into the Turn 2 retainer.  After six cautions and more than half distance, the newly-crowned Earnhardt was able to cruise to a 10th-place finish while Wallace dominated on his way to victory.  Irvan’s battered Ford came home 12th while Schrader, 35 circuits behind, climbed from 39th after the Spencer wreck to manage an impressive 27th.

Bonnett, meanwhile, carried his comeback into the 1994 season, but with tragic results.  The Daytona 500 was to be the first race of a new sponsorship deal with Country Time Lemonade that put him in James Finch’s pink-and-yellow #51 Chevrolet.  On February 11, as Bonnett made his way through Turn 4, an ordinary practice lap ended with a terrible crash into the outside wall.  Bonnett, age 47, lost his life in the crash.

Curiously, in May 2013, the passenger side sheet metal of Bonnett’s 1993 Atlanta car appeared on eBay in a fund raiser for The Crisis Center in Birmingham, Alabama.  The piece, autographed by members of Richard Childress Racing’s pit crew and fabrication staff, was sold for nearly $300.  The archived link to the auction can be found here and the pictures can be found below.

*This marked Bonnett’s first last-place finish at Atlanta since March 16, 1980, when his #21 Purolator Mercury started outside-pole to Buddy Baker, but broke the rear end after 30 laps of the Atlanta 500.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #31 since October 11, 1992, when Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s Bryant Chevrolet was disqualified from the Mello Yello 500.  As of this writing, Bonnett’s finish remains the only time the #31 has finished last in a Cup race at Atlanta.

42) #31-Neil Bonnett / 3 laps / enigne
41) #90-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 19 laps / crash
40) #26-Brett Bodine / 19 laps / crash
39) #7-Geoffrey Bodine / 28 laps / crash
38) #32-Jimmy Horton / 46 laps / crash

1993 Hooters 500, ESPN

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