Darrell Waltrip fretted all through most of race week 25 years ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I hope it’s not boring,” Waltrip said repeatedly. “It’d be awful of it’s boring. We need for it to be really exciting to start a tradition.”
Waltrip was speaking of NASCAR’s first big all-star race, then known as The Winston.
The special event on May 25, 1985, matched the previous Winston Cup season’s dozen race winners.
Much of the 105-mile chase on the 1.5-mile track mirrored Waltrip’s concern. It turned out to be boring. But not the finish, and that’s what counts.
It looked like a runaway for popular Harry Gant, who charged to a lead of 4.16 seconds – almost a full straightaway – over Waltrip with 20 laps to go as the two ran far ahead of Terry Labonte, Cale Yarborough and Tim Richmond, who followed and were to finish third through fifth, in that order.
However, Waltrip began steadily cutting into Gant’s advantage.
On the 69th lap of the race’s 70 laps Waltrip pulled alongside fellow Chevrolet driver Hurryin’ Harry as they sped down the backstretch. Waltrip cleared his rival in Turn 3 and took the lead.
Waltrip whipped to the checkered flag a scant 0.31 seconds in front.
Adding to the drama, the engine in Waltrip’s No. 11 Chevy, fielded by Junior Johnson, blew in a rooster-tail of smoke moments after he crossed the finish line.
“We knew we’d built an engine that was real strong, but not long on duration,” said a jubilant Waltrip. “But we sure didn’t intend to cut it that close.
“The boys in the pits kept telling me over the radio not to run it any harder than I had to, because it wasn’t going to last long.”
Said Johnson: “It’s about the most unique thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just incredible.
“This goes to show you never give up. It looked for all the world like Harry had everybody beat to death. But then we started catching him at thirty-hundredths of a second per lap.
"We did the arithmetic and saw we had just enough time if nothing happened.”
Some associated with Gant’s team suspected foul play, suggesting privately that Waltrip purposely blew the engine to prevent it from being thoroughly inspected.
They hinted it might have been oversized.
Gant wasn’t among the conspiracy theorists. His car owner, Leo Jackson, and crew chief Travis Carter didn’t seem to be, either.
“At the end, my tires went away completely,” said Gant. “They were hot and causing me to slide up the banking in the corners, and this prevented me from accelerating off the turns like I wanted.
“I took a little glance in the mirror with 10 laps left and I saw Darrell coming. I had an idea what was going to happen, and I didn’t look back again.
“When Darrell drew up close to me I could smell something funny and I thought it was my engine. Turns out it was his engine going sour, but it lasted long enough.
“I admit it’s discouraging to have a lead like that and then have it get away from you.”
Continued Waltrip: “Even when Harry got so far ahead, I felt he might be saving something and figured it was going to be real hard to beat a driver as good as him.
"Then I saw his tires smoking and thought we might have a chance. When Harry didn’t put up much of a fight, I saw we might could win. If he had been able to put up any resistance at all, I doubt we could have won, because we didn’t have a lot left ourselves.”
When Waltrip arrived in the press box for the victor’s interview a quarter-century ago he was singing, “We’re in the money! We’re in the money!”
The Waltrip/Johnson team collected $200,000 from the inaugural all-star show’s $500,000 purse. At the time it was the biggest winner’s purse ever in NASCAR.
The passing years have brought a lot of changes to the all-star event, held every year at the Charlotte track save for 1986, when it was taken to Atlanta.
The promoters and sponsors have played with varying distances, number of segments, inverted fields, mandatory pit stops, fans voting on who gets into the field and so forth in striving to assure thrillers.
Mostly, the finishes have proved exciting. And sometimes very controversial.
The formats aren’t all that have changed.
The 2010 winner will earn a whopping $1 million.
In the money, indeed.