Motorsport News

Wild Finish Leads to Separate Paths for 2 Drivers

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The Miller High Life 400 on Feb. 23, 1986 is considered one of the most memorable NASCAR Cup Series races ever held at Richmond Raceway.

It was highlighted by a wild, metal-crunching finish that involved two of NASCAR’s star competitors and resulted in the first career victory for a third-generation driver from Level Cross, N.C.

In retrospect, the race also served as the season’s final confrontation between Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, whose careers were headed in different directions – although no one knew it at the time.

The Richmond event was the second of the 1986 season. By that time, Waltrip had been firmly entrenched as the driver for Junior Johnson and Associates.

Waltrip joined the team in 1981 and achieved almost instant success. He was the Cup champion in 1981 and 1982 and came into the 1986 season as the defending champ. In the span of five full seasons with Johnson, he had won 40 races.

Earnhardt was an early sensation. He won the Rookie of the Year title in 1979 and followed that up the next year with his first championship. 

But less than a year later, he left what was then a team owned by J.D. Stacy for a brief, 11-race tenure with owner and former independent driver, Richard Childress.

Earnhardt moved over to Bud Moore’s team for two seasons before reuniting with Childress in 1984. The union showed promise with six victories in two seasons but by 1986 it was clear Earnhardt – and virtually every other driver – was subordinate to Waltrip.

That would change.

The two would clash at Richmond. After swapping the lead for several laps on what was then a 0.542-mile speedway, Waltrip took the lead with a slick move around Earnhardt down the backstretch with three laps to go.

Just about everyone in the crowd of 30,000 knew Earnhardt was about to let Waltrip get away with it and sure enough, as the two raced into the third turn, Earnhardt clipped the right rear of Waltrip’s No. 11 Chevrolet and sent it directly into the steel guardrail.

There followed a chain reaction that caught up all the drivers behind them except for one – Kyle Petty, the 25-year-old son of Richard Petty, who was driving for the Wood Brothers.

As a result, Petty won the race.

A startled Joe Ruttman was second, Earnhardt recovered from the accident to finish third, Bobby Allison took fourth and Waltrip’s heavily damaged Chevy limped to fifth.

Naturally, Johnson and Waltrip were furious…

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