Darlington Legends: Junior Johnson

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 17, 2009) – Ask racing legend Junior Johnson who his best driver was at Darlington Raceway, and you have to add the codicil, "present company excepted."

Picking No. 2 is hard, he said. But No. 1?

"I always thought I was the best," Johnson said, chuckling. "I just didn’t have the patience."

Johnson is justified in his self-assessment, and right, too. The 77-year-old racing pioneer from the mountains of North Carolina was named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, and (that same year) the best stock car driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine.

He’s dead-on about the patient part, too.

"I can remember several times at Darlington when Junior would have the car to beat," said retired journalist Tom Higgins, who co-authored Johnson’s biography in the late 1990s. "He’d run it flat-out, and sometimes right into the ground."

Johnson admits as much himself: "I had that place almost in reach several times when I was driving, and it flew up and beat me down," he said. "You let your guard down at Darlington and you've just made a big mistake."

The difficulty stemmed from the fact that the track was unlike anything he’d seen. Most racetracks, then and now are similar in the turns; that is, the entrance to turn 1 is similar to the entrance to turn 3, and the exit of turn 2 is the same as turn 4.

With Darlington’s unique egg shape, Johnson said, "No one of the four would match the other. You'd let your guard down because you got through 1 real good, go down to 3 and it'd nail you."

But that, he said, was what made Darlington his favorite track. "It was so competitive. That's why it was my favorite," he said. "When you go to Darlington, you think you're gonna whup up on everybody down there, and you forget you have got to whup that racetrack first.

"I've never been as proud of winning a race as I was when I finally won there," he said. "It gave me a lot of satisfaction, that I finally beat it."

It’s a testament to the difficulty of the old track that only one of Johnson’s 50 wins over his 14-year driving career came at Darlington.

But his success as a car owner (11 wins with six drivers, including himself) ranks Johnson second on the all-time Darlington winners list.

When you note the drivers who won at Darlington under Johnson’s banner, the list reads like a who’s-who.

Lee Roy Yarbrough swept both the spring and fall races in 1969. Bobby Allison won the 1972 Southern 500 in the pair’s only season together, and Cale Yarborough won the Southern 500 in 1973, ’74 and ’78. Darrell Waltrip won the spring races in 1981 and 1984, and Bill Elliott posted victories in the 1992 TranSouth 500 and 1994 Southern 500.

There’s not a bad horse in that stable, so you can see why Johnson hesitated to pick a favorite.

"I had so many good drivers who could drive at Darlington, it's just hard for me to name one of them that was better than the other," he said. "One thing was most were in their prime. If you've got a driver who's in his prime and beating everybody out there, it's hard to pick someone else over him."

When fans think of Johnson’s first race they remember the story of the barefoot boy who parked his mule in 1949 to go race at North Wilkesboro, NC, near his home.

It was not until 1953, however, that he got his first taste of NASCAR -- and Darlington.

Johnson’s first NASCAR race was the Southern 500 that fall. He didn’t exactly set the woods afire; Johnson started 26th and finished 38th, crashing out after 110 of the race’s 364 laps.

He got his first "official" Darlington win in the 1965

Rebel 300, two days after NASCAR disallowed Bud Moore’s protest that his driver, Darel Dieringer, was the rightful winner. Which, Johnson said, was poetic justice for the one he had taken away from him in the 1962 Southern 500.

Johnson was flagged the winner that day, but a protest by Lee Petty opened a can of worms that jumbled the finishing order and put Larry Frank at the top of the list, with Johnson second. It was after midnight when NASCAR flip-flopped the verdict.

"I still think I won that race," Johnson said. "Glen Wood knows that he ran second, and he wound up eighth. A lot of people thought they didn't run in the position that they gave them. I know I didn't."

When he finally got one etched in stone, Johnson said, it took awhile to sink in.

"I was so young and wild in 1953 I didn't even have an idea what it was," he said. "It was a different animal once I got on the track with all the other drivers.

"There was Fonty and Tim Flock, Speedy Thompson, Herb Thomas - many, many of the great race car drivers I later raced against, and they were the best that could be found.

"I show up and don't know a thing about racing, and (thinking) I'm gonna beat 'em all," Johnson said.

"Sure enough, I wound up beating them all."

Darlington Raceway or the track “Too Tough to Tame” as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Victory Lane. In 2009 a NASCAR tradition, the Southern 500®, will return as Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 Seasons of Racing.

Be a part of history when Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 years of racing in 2009. Tickets to the 2009 Southern 500®, as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series Diamond Hill Plywood 200 are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.

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