Point System Aids Waltrip, but He Still Doesn’t Like It

Times Staff Writer

For six years Darrell Waltrip has been lecturing anyone who would listen--from NASCAR president Bill France to fellow drivers, sportswriters and stock car racing fans--about what he considered an inequity in the Winston Cup point system. It put too little emphasis on winning races, he maintained.

Waltrip won 12 of 30 races in 1981 and 1982, only to wind up in a dogfight each of those seasons with Bobby Allison, who won eight races in ’81 and only six in ’82. Waltrip cried ‘foul,’ claiming that NASCAR should reward winning efforts more than consistency.

This year, though, the situation is turned around. Bill Elliott, in a Ford Thunderbird prepared by his brother Ernie, has won 11 of 27 races and $2,034,468. Waltrip, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo prepared by Junior Johnson, has won only three and $910,948. Even so, Waltrip holds a 20-point lead going into Sunday’s Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway, the final race of the NASCAR Grand National season.


Waltrip hasn’t changed his spots.

“I still think it’s a lousy system,” he said after arriving here to practice for today’s pole-position runs. “I’d be hypocritical if I said I liked it now. I’ve expressed my feelings for six years now, and there’s nothing been done about changing it. I can’t believe that a driver who wins the most races and the most money shouldn’t be better rewarded in the points.

“NASCAR’s whole idea seems to be to have two guys coming to Riverside each year running for the championship and they’ve got their wish again this year.”

This will be the seventh straight year the championship has been won in the final race.

This time it’s Waltrip, 38, of Franklin, Tenn., battling Elliott, the Dawsonville, Ga., youngster they now call Million Dollar Bill, since he won a $1-million bonus Sept. 1 at Darlington, S.C. So what does Waltrip think of his championship prospects Sunday?

“What goes around comes around,” he said. “I still don’t think it’s right but I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”

The winner will receive $250,000 in bonus money from R.J. Reynolds but other rewards usually make winning the championship worth about $400,000. The second-place bonus is $150,000.

To win his third championship Sunday, Waltrip needs to lead at least one lap and finish no worse than third in the race--even if Elliott wins and leads the most laps.


“We’re not planning a thing different this week,” Waltrip said. “I’ll run my regular old race. Junior doesn’t have anything tricky planned. We’ll just try to be consistent, smooth, go fast and stay out of trouble. We would like to win the pole, though, because that would just about guarantee us leading the first lap and that’s five more points. That would make it just a little bit tougher for Bill.”

The most points a driver can earn is 185, which would be 175 for winning, 5 for leading one lap and 5 more for leading the most laps. Second place gets 170 points.

This is the second-closest finish in NASCAR history, or as Waltrip said, “as close as skin on a sausage.”

Waltrip is an old hand at these close finishes, though. He was in the closest, when he went to old Ontario Motor Speedway for the 1979 Times 500 with a two-point lead over Richard Petty. He lost the championship when he drove too conservatively, got lapped and finished eighth while Petty ended up fifth.

Waltrip won the title in 1981 and 1982 and finished second to Allison in 1983.

Last year, even though he won six races, Waltrip was fifth in the final standings. Champion Terry Labonte had only two wins, and runner-up Harry Gant had three.

“I didn’t like coming to Riverside last year. You don’t have a good year unless you win the championship, no matter how many races you win, and I wasn’t even in the hunt,” Waltrip said.


“This year is the way I like it, in the thick of things right down to the last lap of the season. I think Riverside is the ideal track for deciding the championship because the driver has more control of his destiny on a road course than on an oval.”

Riverside is a 2.62-mile road course--the only one used on the Grand National circuit--with eight turns and a long straightaway on the backstretch. The race is 502 kilometers, or 311 miles, and will be 119 laps.

“If you make a mistake on a high-banked oval, or if a driver just ahead of you makes a mistake, you can be history,” Waltrip said. “At Riverside, with all the gear shifting and left- and right-hand turns, there are more opportunities to make up errors. What happens will happen, but my first consideration is not to beat myself.”

Another concern for Waltrip is the future of racing in Southern California. Riverside, where West Coast NASCAR racing has been a fixture since 1963, is scheduled to close after next year. Some observers think that Sunday’s race could be its last.

“I’ve heard that if our race doesn’t draw, the track may be border-line for next year,” Waltrip said. “A lot of people back home feel that way. It’s hard to figure when only 30,000 people out of 22 million will come to see us out here.

“What Southern California needs is a good mile-and-a-half high-banked oval. You people have never seen us at our best. That’s on the high banks. Ontario was an oval, but it didn’t have any banking and it never was the show we put on at Charlotte or Daytona or Talladega or Darlington. I hope somebody comes along and builds a track pretty quick or the only place L.A. folks can watch us race will be on TV. I just hate to see Riverside close, though. It has such a great tradition for racing.”


Both Waltrip and Elliott have good records at Riverside. Waltrip has won four times, the 1979 and 1980 Winston Western 500s and the June 400-kilometer races in 1980 and 1981. He also holds the track qualifying record of 116.782 m.p.h. set in 1983. Elliott won his first Grand National race in the 1983 Winston Western 500. Last June, in the Budweiser 400, Elliott was sixth and Waltrip eighth.

After the Southern 500 at Darlington, race No. 20 on the 28-race schedule, Elliott had what seemed to be an unsurmountable 206 point lead over Waltrip.

“It was the same old deal as far as we were concerned,” Waltrip said. “It seems like we’re always falling way back and coming up at the end, but when a guy’s more than 200 points ahead with only eight races left, you’ve got to have a heap of help.

“You can’t move up in the points like that unless the other guy has some bad luck. Elliott had four races in a row where he didn’t finish and we were consistently high. I never thought we could catch him, but each week something different happened to him.”

In the first three races after Darlington, Waltrip cut 183 points from Elliott’s lead. Waltrip won the Wrangler 400 at Richmond, and finished second in the Delaware 500 at Dover and Goody’s 500 at Martinsville, Va. In those three races, Elliott finish 12th, 20th and 17th, suffering a broken axle at Dover and being involved in a wreck at Martinsville.

Elliott’s string of ill fortune reached rock bottom on Sept. 30 at North Wilkesboro, N.C., when a broken flywheel put him out of the race with a 30th-place finish and Waltrip took over the points lead for the first time.


“I know it sounds silly, but you can’t argue with the old saying, ‘That’s racing,’ ” Waltrip said. “I learned that back in ’79 when Richard (Petty) caught us. I learned that you couldn’t count on anything, no matter how far in front you seemed to be.”

Elliott snapped out of his slump two weeks ago when he won the Atlanta Journal 500, but Waltrip’s third-place finish allowed him to retain his tenuous lead.

“We would settle for a duplicate of the Atlanta finish.” Waltrip said, “We’re out here to race and we want to win the race, but we’re more interested in winning that championship for Junior.”

Johnson-prepared cars have won five of the last nine years--with Cale Yarborough in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and Waltrip in 1980 and 1981.

“We know how it feels to win and how it feels to lose, and believe me, winning is better no matter how much character they say the other builds,” Waltrip said.

‘NASCAR’s whole idea seems to be to have two guys coming to Riverside each year running for the championship and they’ve got their wish again this year.’