Fifty years ago, Bobby Allison put together an unusual streak that is unlikely to be matched.
From Sept. 6, 1971 to Oct. 8, 1972, Allison led at least one lap in 39 consecutive NASCAR Cup races, establishing a record that held through the rest of his career and hasn’t been touched since his retirement in 1988.
Those seasons were remarkable for Allison beyond the fact that he was at the front of the pack so often. He won 11 times in 1971, then moved on to Junior Johnson’s team in 1972 and won 10 races there. Still, those numbers barely scratch the surface of the story.
Allison led at least one lap in the final nine races of 1971 and carried his Coca-Cola sponsorship (and the “Coke Machine”) to Johnson the next season. He and Richard Petty were easily the sport’s top dogs that year, Petty winning eight times and taking the championship despite Allison’s 10 victories. No one else in the top 19 in points won more than once that season.
It should come as no surprise that Allison and Petty, who were at the front so often that year, wound up in several furious battles. They became fierce competitors in head-to-head battles as Allison challenged Petty for king of the hill.
The worst (or best) of it came in October at North Wilkesboro Speedway. The two slammed and banged into each other numerous times over the closing miles, with Petty’s car surviving the action to cross the finish line first. The smoke-filled finish was too much for one fan, who tried to attack Petty in victory lane before Petty’s brother, Maurice, popped the fan in the head with Richard’s helmet.
Despite losing the win to Petty, Allison led 239 laps at Wilkesboro, extending his string to 37 races. The tour moved on to Charlotte and Rockingham, where Allison scored back-to-back wins, pushing the races-led streak to 39.
How did this happen? Mechanic/crew chief Tim Brewer, who was on the Cup tour in those days and later in the decade went to work for Junior Johnson, said Johnson’s race cars were immaculate.
“Junior’s philosophy was you don’t let anything on the race car break, period,” Brewer said. “He always had great drivers, and he said if you give that guy a piece they can run all day they can win the race. And Junior had great people. He had two of the best engine guys ever in Robert Yates and Harold Elliott.”
All of this transpired against a dark background of sorts. Allison, one of the smartest chassis builders among drivers across NASCAR history, had different ideas about car setups from Herb Nab, the Johnson team’s crew chief. Additionally, Allison has said over the years that he and Johnson did not communicate well during his season there, claiming Johnson told him that Nab would be his contact for all things mechanical.
“Herb was not receptive to Bobby bringing his own chassis ideas and such,” Brewer said. “Bobby’s claim to fame was his work on the front-steer chassis, and Herb had run rear-steer cars (the primary difference is in how the cars turned). They went back and forth over that. But they ran good. They were the guys to beat.”
Allison, frustrated by the situation within the Johnson team despite his success, had decided before season’s end that he would leave Johnson and start his own operation. That decision, Allison has claimed, led Johnson to give him a less-than-competitive car in the season finale.
The season ended Nov. 12 at Texas World Speedway in College Station, and a lap led there would have given Allison a unique statistic – at least one lap led in each race that year. He finished fourth but failed to lead. The only drivers who led a lap were winner Buddy Baker (133 laps), A.J. Foyt (20) and Petty (97).
So the streak ended at 39.
Allison drove his own Chevrolets the next season, leading in 20 of 28 races and winning twice.