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Retro Racing: Johnson still a hard-charger as he turns 81

NASCAR.com

As Tom Wolfe wrote in a famous 1965 Esquire magazine article entitled "The Last American Hero," Junior Johnson was the hardest of the hard-chargers of his era. And for the NASCAR Hall of Famer who turned 81 on Thursday, that particular season was the perfect example of how Johnson went for broke -- or broke something -- nearly every time he climbed behind the wheel.

Nobody won -- or failed trying to win -- more spectacularly than Johnson. He made 36 starts in 1965 and was running at the finish in only 17 of them. However, when he did get to the finish line, he was nearly unstoppable. He finished on the lead lap 14 times, 13 of those as the race winner.

That season, Johnson won nine poles and led 3,984 laps, nearly double that of champion Ned Jarrett, who made 18 more starts. Johnson failed to lead at least one lap only six times, and in all but one of his victories, Johnson led at least 100 laps.

Johnson up front in '65
100 laps or more led
Richmond 1 175
Hillsboro 2 137
North Wilkesboro 1 356
Martinsville 22 146
Bristol 1 240
Darlington 1 197
Winston-Salem 1 200
Asheville 1 300
Atlanta 4 111
Manassas 1 396
Bristol 23 103
Winston-Salem 1 249
Hickory 4 188
Martinsville 1 481
North Wilkesboro 1 204

That came in the May race at Hickory. Jarrett had the car to beat that day, but he lost the race when a flat tire on the next-to-last lap allowed Johnson to flash by for the win in a race in which Johnson only led 13 laps.

How dominant was Johnson's No. 26 Ford when it stayed in one piece? He led 175 of the 200 laps at Richmond, all 200 at Winston-Salem, all 300 at Asheville, all but four of the 400 at Manassas and all but 19 of the 500 at Martinsville.

However, when it came to the big-money races at the bigger tracks, Johnson more often than not was sitting on the sidelines, watching someone else grab the trophy and the check. With the exception of a win in the spring race at Darlington, and his Daytona 500 qualifier, Johnson had more than his share of issues. In nine races on superspeedways that season, his average finish was 20.78.

Johnson's season was hit-or-miss right from the get-go. He won the pole and was the only other car on the lead lap behind winner Dan Gurney at Riverside. He edged Fred Lorenzen in the 100-mile preliminary race at Daytona, edged Fred Lorenzen in the qualifier but crashed after leading the first 27 laps of the Daytona 500.

After mechanical difficulties in his next two starts, Johnson dominated Richmond and finished a lap down in second at Hillsboro. After overheating issues sidelined him at Atlanta, Johnson then went on a tear, winning eight of the next 13 races, while failing to make it to the finish in the other five. That included Johnson pulling into the pits and climbing from the car before the halfway point in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.

After back-to-back victories at Manassas and Old Bridge, Johnson hit a stretch where he couldn't win for losing. After crashing at Islip, Johnson led the first 12 laps at Watkins Glen, only to blow an engine. He crashed after leading 103 laps at Bristol, led another 65 before losing another engine at Nashville, crashed at Weaverville and had throttle issues at Columbia.

Johnson thought he might have turned things around by leading 249 of 250 laps at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, but after winning the pole for the Southern 500, the ignition malfunctioned immediately after the green flag, and he pulled directly into the garage with a 44th-place finish.

He was the class of the field in the fall events at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro but finished the year with three more DNFs, including blowing an engine after leading 85 laps at Rockingham.

Johnson tallied as many wins as Jarrett, but because of his varying degrees of success --and because he ran fewer races than any of the other top drivers other than Marvin Panch -- Johnson finished a distant 12th in the points, more than 20,000 behind.

Johnson was only 36, but he decided to retire as a driver the following season, as did Jarrett. Both cited the death of Fireball Roberts at Charlotte in 1964 -- an accident triggered when they collided early in the race -- as the reason for climbing out of the cockpit for good.

"Me and Ned got tangled up coming off the second turn," Johnson said in a 2010 interview following his Hall of Fame nomination. "We spun out coming down the backstretch. Fireball came along, trying to dodge us and spun out himself. He hit the wall and turned over and busted his gas tank. And that gas busted into flames.

"We realized we could have been the one in his place."

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