Wednesday, February 28, 2018

#JD70: J.D. McDuffie's Career at Rockingham

J.D. McDuffie makes his final start at Rockingham in a Pontiac
sponsored by North Charleston Mustang, March 1990.
PHOTO: Al Steinberg
While J.D. McDuffie never lived to see the Cup Series race in Las Vegas, “The Strip” was a favorite stop for the driver as he steered “Old Blue” from Sanford to the road course in Riverside, California. We’ll cover McDuffie’s career on the road course this summer. In the meantime, this week’s feature will be about another of his favorite stops: North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham.

If McDuffie had a favorite track, Rockingham was it. The facility was built near a long-gone dirt track (also called Rockingham) where he raced against the likes of John Sears and Wayne Andrews in an independent racer’s league. Just over one hour’s drive south-west of Sanford – so close that I quite suddenly found myself driving alongside the overgrown parking lot during my drive from Sanford to Darlington last year – it was one of the easiest tracks for McDuffie to get to. It was perhaps the reason his 42 starts there were his most of any track he ever raced in Cup, and why not one of his 32 last-place finishes happened there.

McDuffie didn’t start the inaugural Rockingham race in late 1965, but he did start the second, the Peach Blossom 500, held the following spring on March 13, 1966. McDuffie started last in a daunting 44-car field and climbed his way all the way to 16th, beating such legends as Marvin Panch, Curtis Turner, Wendell Scott, Ned Jarrett, and Bobby Isaac. His best finish there was his third start, the Carolina 500 on June 16, 1968, when he charged from 30th to finish 7th in a race won by Donnie Allison.

As with last week’s feature in Atlanta, Rockingham saw McDuffie drive for a few other car owners. In 1969, he finished 20th for Dr. Don Tarr. In 1971, he finished 14th for car owner Roger Lubinski, his lone start driving for Roger Lubinski, who fielded cars for Brad and Brian Keselowski’s uncle Ron Keselowski. And in 1976, he made a one-off start for Virginian owner-driver Jeff Handy, the 18th and final start for his team, resulting in a 26th-place finish.

McDuffie’s fourth and final Top 10 at Rockingham came on March 28, 1982, during the Warner W. Hodgdon Carolina 500. In a race won by Cale Yarborough, who outlasted Darrell Waltrip for the win, McDuffie once again found his way from a poor qualifying performance, coming from 25th to finish 10th. Even in his later years, he still managed to carve out good finishes there, coming from 34th to 14th in 1983 and 29th to 16th in 1984. His son Jeff also made a pair of starts driving one of his father’s older cars, running 17th in 1980 and 23rd in 1985.

J.D. McDuffie qualified for just two of his final seven Rockingham starts. His final green flag there came on March 4, 1990, in a race dominated by Kyle Petty. Driving an unsponsored #70 Pontiac, McDuffie started 36th and made it 171 laps before handling woes ended his day, leaving him 35th.

While no longer on the circuit, the Rockingham track remains an important part of McDuffie’s history, symbolic of the determination that allowed him to cross four decades of racing.

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