Childress, Earnhardt Were Hot At CMS 30 Years Ago

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 7 2016
Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt have a big history at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt had a big history at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Thirty years before Charlotte Motor Speedway became the first race in the Chase’s second round, Dale Earnhardt and his Richard Childress Racing team steamrolled into the 1.5-mile track in October 1986 with a season as hot as the sweltering temperatures that blanketed the facility that fall.

Color nascar logoWith only four races left in the 29-race season. Earnhardt possessed three victories, 13 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes, and a 122-point advantage over Darrell Waltrip.  The Kannapolis, N.C., native had already pocketed one Cup victory at Charlotte that year, defeating Tim Richmond by 1.59 seconds in the Coca-Cola 600. Now it was time to see if he could sweep the October events at his home track; a feat Childress knew his 35-year-old driver could accomplish.  

“He (Earnhardt) was a master at Charlotte,” Childress said. “We felt like if we gave him a car, we didn’t fall out, and we built engines that would last, he would get his job done. We just had to do ours.”

That weekend, in 90-degree temperatures, everyone did their job.

Earnhardt swept the two races, dominating the All Pro 300 Busch Series (Xfinity) race on Saturday, leading 194 of the event’s 200 laps in a Pontiac he prepared. In fact, he lapped everyone except Waltrip, the race’s runner-up. That provided Earnhardt and his team confidence heading into the next day’s race then known as the Oakwood Homes 500.

“Even today if you go out and really run good or win a race on Saturday it gives the driver, the team, everybody confidence … you’re on a roll,” Childress said. “Dale had a saying, ‘Whenever that horse is up you ride it because you never know when it’s going to go down on you.’ You can be winning and winning, having a great year, and then all of a sudden that luck can change on you.”

Race day for the 1986 Cup event dawned with temperatures once again climbing into the 90s. That

Dale Earnhardt ruled at Charlotte in '86. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt ruled at Charlotte in ’86. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

day 100 people, including 40 high school band members participating in pre-race activities, were treated for heat exhaustion. Of those 100, a quarter of them were transported to the hospital in Concord, N.C., for additional treatment. Track officials said 300,000 pounds of ice were used during that race weekend with 1,000 pounds shipped in from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Earnhardt was one of 20 drivers who wore a “cool suit” that day in the race, but it wasn’t the heat that gave the talented driver the most problem. Instead, it was tires that left him two laps down by lap 48 of the 334-lap event.

The first issue occurred on lap 38 while Earnhardt was running third. He suspected a tire had equalized so he pitted and one lap was lost with the replacement of a left-front tire. Ten laps later Earnhardt pitted again, this time with a cut right-rear tire. Now Earnhardt’s deficit was two laps and he struggled to remain in the top 30. However, his car had suffered no damage either time as he never hit the wall when he experienced problems with his Chevrolet’s bias-ply tires. That’s because Earnhardt could smell a tire that was in trouble, Childress said. It was a talent Childress believed Earnhardt acquired in the 1970s while aligning wheels at Punchy Whitaker’s in Concord.

“You know how a tire smells when you let the air out of it?” Childress asked. “He recognized the smell when a tire was going down. I can remember him saying that more than once and I can’t remember any time he was ever wrong. It was amazing.”

Earnhardt’s sense of smell saved his car, but now he had to overcome a two-lap deficit. It was a situation that Earnhardt later admitted left him “worried.” In those days there were no free passes and wave arounds. Everyone raced back to the caution flag in an attempt to regain a lost lap and the double-file restarts consisted of lapped cars on the inside and lead-lap cars on the outside. Regaining a lost lap was much more difficult than under today’s rules.

“Any time you fall behind so early in the race with so many cars out there, it’s tough,” Earnhardt said after the October 1986 race. “It knocked the wind out of my sails. I was really discouraged.”

Earnhardt also was discouraged by fans throwing beer cans and bottles onto the track.

“I saw more cans and bottles in the first turn today and that might have been a factor for me,” Earnhardt said after the race. “I thought I was racing in the parking lot.”

Earnhardt quickly made up one lap thanks to a caution flag. It was lap 84, on the restart from the event’s third caution period, when Earnhardt slipped around leader Benny Parsons to regain one lost lap. Almost simultaneously a multi-car accident occurred behind him and immediately brought out the race’s fourth yellow flag. That allowed Earnhardt to come around and once again get close to the leader on the restart.

When the race restarted on lap 101, Earnhardt zipped around leader Geoff Bodine, regaining his second lost lap. However, since he was just in front of Bodine he was still nearly a lap down. Once again, Earnhardt needed a caution and he got it on lap 119 when Bobby Hillin and Bill Elliott collided at the fourth turn exit. Earnhardt stayed ahead of Bodine as they raced back to the yellow flag; a move that returned him to the lead lap.

After being down two laps, Earnhardt fought back to lead at the halfway mark. However, with less than 70 laps remaining Harry Gant possessed a 6.23-second advantage over Earnhardt. His lead was nearly a lap on lap 277 when he made a green-flag pit stop. His pitting turned the lead over to Bodine, but when Bodine pitted Gant resumed the No. 1 position. This time Gant owned a 4.23-second advantage over Earnhardt, but he couldn’t maintain it. Earnhardt began running the high groove and cutting away at the deficit. By making up nearly three-tenths of a second per lap, Earnhardt ran down Gant and passed him on lap 297 to take the lead for good. Overall, Earnhardt led four times for 80 laps, including the final 38.

“When he knew he had to dig deep he could dig deeper than anybody I have ever seen,” Childress said. “I asked Dale one time how he went so hard at the end of the races. He said, ‘I want it worse than anyone else and I dig deeper than anyone else those last 50 laps.’”

No doubt Earnhardt’s Chevrolets were powered by potent engines and handled well, but he also

Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

had another secret that Childress doesn’t mind revealing today. Earnhardt could run with more stagger – the difference in tire circumference between the left- and right-side tires – on the rear of the car than any other competitor.

“Most would run a half-inch of stagger,” Childress explained. “We would run 2 ½- to 3-inches of stagger. It just made the car turn so much faster. Most drivers couldn’t drive it with that much stagger.”

With Earnhardt’s Charlotte victory that sizzling hot day in October the championship battle tilted in his favor. He gained 37 points on Waltrip to increase his lead to 159 with only three races remaining. Richmond, who trailed Earnhardt by 144 points entering the event, fell to a 232-point deficit due to engine woes that relegated him to a 27th-place finish.

Earnhardt’s fourth win of the season filled him with confidence since he had won Charlotte’s fall race six years earlier when he claimed his first series title.

“We ran our Daytona car here this time and we were a little bit worried about it working all day long,” Earnhardt said after the 1986 Cup race. “We put everything we had into this race – our best car, our best equipment. We pretty much do that every race, but we pulled out anything we thought would help us.”

Earnhardt and his team, then known as the “Junkyard Dogs” because of their tenacity, wrapped up the championship two races later with a dominating victory at Atlanta. That day Earnhardt led all but three of the final 138 laps and finished a lap ahead of runner-up Richard Petty. Waltrip lost his hopes of capturing a fourth championship when he departed the 328-lap race on lap 83 with engine problems in his Junior Johnson-owned Chevrolet. He finished 39th.

With the close of the 1986 season, Earnhardt possessed his second title, finishing 288 points ahead of Waltrip, while Childress owned his first-ever championship in NASCAR’s prestigious series.  Perhaps Earnhardt’s victory key to Charlotte did, indeed, open NASCAR’s championship door for him.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 7 2016
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