With the 2019 season serving as the 50th anniversary of Richard Childress Racing, we plan to dip into the archives to present the stories of iconic moments, race wins, championships and much more as part of our weekly Throwback Thursday series.
While the 2019 NASCAR season is in the second week of the West Coast Swing, the Cup Series did not always head out west at the start of the year. In 1987, Richmond Fairgrounds was the third race of the year and on this date, the Cup Series prepared for 400 laps around the old, and often muddy, 0.542-mile track.
Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet team were already off to a strong start that season, earning their first victory on the season in dominant fashion at Rockingham Speedway on March 1. Entering the Richmond race weekend, Earnhardt was tied with Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott for the points lead.
During the weekend’s final practice session on Saturday, Earnhardt had an issue with the throttle and hit the wall hard. With the car destroyed, the team spent most of the evening working on the car and making repairs to the nose for Sunday’s race. By doing so, the team was able to maintain their third-place starting position and Earnhardt wasted no time putting pressure on pole-sitter Alan Kulwicki for the race lead.
Working the back bumper of Kulwicki’s No. 7, Earnhardt made multiple attempts at the lead in the opening laps. On the ninth lap of the race, Earnhardt tried to dive under Kulwicki, made contact with the left rear of the No. 7 car and spun around to the inside of Turn 4 as the rest of the field drove by him at speed. Despite spinning in front of the entire field, there was no caution thrown and Earnhardt was forced to loop the car around and stay on the lead lap.
Within 75 laps, Earnhardt had worked his way back to the top 10 – without the help of cautions, free passes, nothing but hard driving. By Lap 123, when the race went back to green flag conditions after the first caution of the afternoon, Earnhardt had muscled his way to fourth and he was far from done muscling his way to the front.
After the restart on Lap 123, Earnhardt dove hard under the No. 33 of Harry Gant for the third position as they entered Turn 3. Kicking up dirt from the inside of the track, Earnhardt door-slammed Gant and sent ‘Handsome Harry’ spinning into the outside wall and bringing out the second caution of the day.
“The track was awful tough and I spun out there at the first of the race trying to get under Alan. After rubbing and rubbing him I spun the car out. I tried to stay off of him,” Earnhardt said after the race. “I just had to work my way back to the front and they were racing awfully close.
“Once I got under Harry, I don’t think he knew I was there and I clipped him and spun him around,” he said. “I hate that happened because Harry was running awfully good.”
Earnhardt took command of the race for the first time of the day after the incident with Gant, but had to deal with Darrell Waltrip, who he tangled with one year earlier on the final lap at Richmond.
Once Earnhardt finally got by Waltrip he led 222 of the remaining 232 laps but had to hold off Geoffrey Bodine in the closing laps. As he took the white flag, Earnhardt was forced to make evasive maneuvers to snake his way through the final corner as Ken Schrader wrecked and spun across the track.
“It wouldn’t have been too tough, but after that accident yesterday morning I’m awfully sore in my neck and my back,” Earnhardt told legendary reporter Chris Economaki in Victory Lane.
“Richard Childress and those guys proved what kind of champions they are putting this race car back together,” said Earnhardt. “They said, ‘Let’s fix this one,’ and I sort of wanted to get the other car out, but they said, ‘Let’s fix this one and we can win the race.’ I’ll be darn if they weren’t right.”
Earnhardt told Economaki he had no doubt in the RCR crew’s ability to not only fix the car, but to do whatever it took to repair it to be a race-winning car for the race.
“I’ve got confidence in them guys,” he said. “You know, they didn’t get any practice last week at Rockingham and we won the race. We didn’t get any practice here and we won the race. I think we’ll just stop practicing.”
Earnhardt and the RCR group continued their hot start to the 1987 season and never looked back.
After their first two wins at Rockingham and Richmond, the No. 3 team finished 16th at Atlanta Motor Speedway and then scored four-straight victories at Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville. In all, RCR would earn 11 victories that season – a personal best for both the organization and RCR – and captured their second-consecutive Cup Series championship.