Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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

"Old Blue" in the Talladega infield, 1984
The Talladega Superspeedway has had a long history of surprise winners and strong performances by unheralded drivers and teams. For McDuffie Racing, it was a gamble – each start a test of the durability of his hand-crafted engines, and at worst, the risk of totaling one of his few remaining cars.

McDuffie made 28 starts at Talladega and failed to finish 15 of them – more than half his starts there. An oil leak was the listed cause of a Lap 73 retirement on August 23, 1970, the third race ever run at the superspeedway. In a race won by Pete Hamilton, McDuffie drove a 1969 Mercury up to the 29th spot on the grid, and despite the DNF finished ahead of inaugural Talladega winner Richard Brickhouse, who placed 48th in a sprawling field of 50.

McDuffie never broke the Top 20 at Talladega until May 6, 1973, when he was one of the beneficiaries of a massive pileup on Lap 9 that eliminated 19 of the 60 starters, including polesitter Buddy Baker, and critically injured Hall of Famer Wendell Scott. Even then, McDuffie still failed to finish, this time with a busted oil pan after 147 laps. The attrition was enough to leave him 18th at the finish.

None of McDuffie’s 32 last-place finishes occurred at Talladega, but two of his Top Tens did. The first occurred on August 8, 1976, the day Dave Marcis won by nearly a lap over Buddy Baker. It was the first Talladega race in two years where the #70 finished under power. McDuffie finished 7th that day, working his way up from 31st on the grid, and came home six laps behind the leaders. On the same lap were Lennie Pond and Tighe Scott. The second occurred in the same event a year later on August 7, 1977. This time, he ran 8th, five laps behind winner Donnie Allison, and just one spot behind Bobby Allison’s AMC Matador.

The two times McDuffie came closest to finishing last were a pair of next-to-last-place runs on May 14, 1978 and May 4, 1980, both due to engine failure. In the first, he was edged by a lap by Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling’s father, while the second was by 15 laps to a frustrated Darrell Waltrip, who busted a cam on his DiGard-prepared #88 Gatorade Oldsmobile. Fortunately for McDuffie and his small budget, he only crashed out of one Talladega race. Tragically, that same wreck on August 17, 1975 claimed the life of veteran Tiny Lund after his Dodge was struck by the Pontiac of Terry Link.

In his seven Talladega starts from the 1980 finish onward, McDuffie never finished worse than 28th and only failed to finish one more time, a burned piston in the late stages of Cale Yarborough’s win on July 28, 1985.

However, in the crescendo toward the institution of carburetor restrictor-plates in 1988, McDuffie began to have trouble qualifying. From 1981 through 1987, he missed half of his 14 attempts, including both races in 1984 and 1986. His final start at the track came on July 26, 1987, two months after Davey Allison’s first career win. The #70 Rumple Furniture Pontiac started 35th in the field of 40 and finished 25th, the third-to-last car to cross the line under power.

McDuffie’s final attempt to make the Talladega field was in May 1991, when he brought to the track the same dark blue Pontiac that just missed the cut for the Daytona 500. McDuffie was the second-fastest car to miss the race, following Mark Gibson, and was then invited to compete in the weekend’s ARCA Racing Series event. McDuffie Racing elected not to enter the July 28, 1991 running of the DieHard 500, and instead turned their attention to Watkins Glen, just two weeks later.

Reserve your copy of "J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend" at Waldorf Publishing, coming July 15, 2018. Click here for more details.

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