Thursday, May 7, 2020

PREVIEW: The last-place history of North Wilkesboro

J.D. McDuffie (foreground) and Alan Kulwicki lined up
to qualify for the 1991 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro.
PHOTO: Mike and Lesley Demers
It’s somewhat appropriate that a digitally rendered North Wilkesboro hosts the final round of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational. The track hosted the season finale for NASCAR’s first Cup Series season in 1949, where Bob Flock won the race and Red Byron locked-up the championship. The last-place finisher of that day’s 22-car show was Frank “Rebel” Mundy (born Francisco Eduardo Menendez). Mundy was also friends with “Big” Bill France, and became a founding member of the Streamline Hotel meeting that laid the foundation for NASCAR.

Mundy also happened to be the first of 40 drivers to score their first Cup Series last-place finish at North Wilkesboro. Among them were Glenn “Fireball” Roberts (April 29, 1951), Lee Petty (October 24, 1954), Ricky Rudd (April 6, 1975), Tommy Houston (April 20, 1980), Rob Moroso (April 22, 1990), Ernie Irvan (September 29, 1991) and Jeff Gordon (April 18, 1993). Gordon’s finish came in just his 8th series start. He would go on to sweep both last-place finishes at the track that year, then claim the final checkered flag just three seasons later.

North Wilkesboro also holds the distinction as the only track where three generations of the Petty family finished last at least once. Lee’s aforementioned finish in 1954 – the result of a hub failure - came on the same day he clinched his first championship. Kyle’s occurred on April 17, 1983 when the oil cooler ruptured on his #7 7-Eleven Pontiac. Richard didn’t finish last there until October 15, 1989 – the same day Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt made contact racing for the lead on the final lap, handing the victory to Geoffrey Bodine. It was “The King’s” 15th and final last-place finish in the series, and came at a track where he’d won 15 times, most recently on April 5, 1981.

The late J.D. McDuffie holds the record for most last-place finishes at North Wilkesboro with four – three in the fall and one in the spring. He’s followed closely by fellow independent Jimmy Means with three. McDuffie made 36 starts at the track, and attempted races there well into his final season. His last attempt for the First Union 400 on April 21, 1991 saw McDuffie race the same burgundy car which he drove in his final start at Watkins Glen four months later. McDuffie managed to run 36th-fastest of the 41 to take time, but just missed the cut for the 33-car field.

Only 12 of the 93 Cup races saw the last-place finisher complete more than one-quarter of the 400-lap distance. All but one of those races were held from 1988 onward, when low attrition and long green-flag runs became more commonplace. Geoffrey Bodine won two caution-free races there in 1992 and 1994, and the latter marked the last time a Cup winner lapped the field. Three times the last-place finisher failed to complete a single lap, including a “did not start” by Fireball Roberts after a practice crash in 1964. There may have been more – four more races from 1950 through 1953 have no record of how many laps the last-place finisher completed.

In three of the last four Cup races at North Wilkesboro, the last-place finisher was still running at the finish – Jimmy Spencer in the fall of 1995, then Mark Martin and Derrike Cope in ’96. All were within 45 laps of the race leader. Spencer was within 10 laps in the fall of ’95, the first Cup race since 1959 where the entire field was still running at the finish. Mike Wallace, who is set to return to NASCAR in this summer’s XFINITY race on the Indianapolis road course, finished last at Wilkesboro on April 9, 1995, out with crash damage in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Ford.

For more on the last-place history of each NASCAR Cup Series track, including a few like North Wilkesboro that are no longer on the circuit, I invite you to download my free LASTCAR Track Guide eBook at this link.

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