The 10 Biggest Mistakes in NASCAR History
Car owners, drivers, sponsors—sometimes they make good decisions, sometimes they make bad ones. The mistakes on this list highlights some of the worst decisions I’ve seen in NASCAR in my 20 years as a fan. Not all looked bad at the time, but as they say, hindsight is 20-20.
No. 10 Bobby Labonte’s move to Petty, then Hall of Fame, then TRG
Life was good for Bobby Labonte in the late 90s and early 2000s. But after scoring a big win the season finale at Miami in 2003, the bottom fell out.
After disastrous 2004 and 2005 seasons, Labonte made the decision to leave JGR. Where would he go? RCR? DEI? Ganassi? Nope, Petty Enterprise’s team that had not won, or even contended for six years.
After asking for a release from PW after 2008, Bobby was once again in the rumor mill for a shot to drive for Richard Childress. Instead Labonte opted to drive for Hall of Fame racing. Another disastrous season left him on the Market again. This time he made the choice to drive for upstart TRG Motorsports.
The reason? Labonte stated at the time that he wanted to the one to bring PE back to glory. I can’t blame him for that. I’m really not sure why he chose HoF or TRG.
The backlash? I can blame Labonte for ruining several years that he could have been competitive if he would have had good equipment. Now his Career is hanging by a thread, a once Hall of Fame-caliber career has become a forgettable one.
No. 9 Mark Martin's dive into the pits at Bristol 1994
In the closing laps of the Busch Series event in the spring of 1994, Mark Martin was leading when a caution came out. After the White Flag flew, mark dove into the pits, not waiting for the checkered flag, handing David Green his only win during his championship season.
The reason? No clue. Martin may have said it best, “No one else could ever be that stupid.” Sorry, Mark. You were not the first to do this, as you will see in the next slide.
The backlash? Not much, a little money. Some embarrassment. A good laugh. A funny story.
No. 8 Cale Yarborough giving up 2nd at 1984 Firecracker 400
I’m not sure a lot of people even know about this one or remember it. After the exciting dual with the King that left Richard Petty in Victory Lane for the 200th and final time, Cale Yarborough drove to the pits a lap early. Mark Martin is not the only driver to do this. After an intense battle, Yarborough came up about a foot short of the win.
The reason? I guess Cale just got caught up in the moment, or was so frustrated with losing that he didn’t pay attention.
The backlash? Not much really, he only lost one spot, finishing third behind Petty and Harry Gant. A lot of people forgot this one, so it really was not a big deal. Yarborough was not a full-time driver at this point in his career so points didn’t matter either.
No. 7 JGR making Amric Almirola get out of the car at Milwaukee.
In July 2007 during a Busch Series race at the Milwaukee Mile, Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor Rockwell Automation forced Aric Almirola to get out of the car that he had won the pole with, led a lot of laps with, and was running in the top five with.
The reason? Denny Hamlin was scheduled to drive the car, Denny was late arriving at the track from a practice session for his cup car. The sponsor wanted Hamlin in the car. Hamlin went on to claim the win that was credited to Almirola.
The backlash? Almirola left the team and has gone on to build a very promising career. Now with ties to Hendrick, after a relief driver role with the 48 team, and a shot drive the Jr. Motorsport entry in the Nationwide series, the sky is the limit for him. This mistake may move up the list a little as time goes on. Does anyone else see Almirola as Jeff Gordon’s replacement?
No. 6 Marcos Ambrose's troubles at Sonoma and Montreal
Marcose Ambrose may be the most likable driver in NASCAR. Two losses he has suffered in the past year unfortunately are the first thing people think about when they hear his name.
Ambrose overdrove the final corner while leading at Montreal during the Nationwide race last year, handing the win to Carl Edwards. At Sonoma in the Sprint Cup race this season, he shut his car off during a caution. The car would not restart, costing him another win.
The reason? Just pure dumb luck and being a driver without much experience running up front in stock cars.
The backlash? Ambrose is being perceived as a choker, as a driver that is not ready to win a national level. People are wrong. He will win multiple races in his career.
No. 5 Casey Atwood moving up too soon
Casey Atwood was Joey Logano when Joey was in grade school. In 1999 the hottest young driver was driving in the Busch series for Bewco Motorsports.
Atwood was the youngest winner in NASCAR's junior level, until Kyle Busch broke his record a few years later. Late in the 2000 season new car owner Ray Evernham, who had led Jeff Gordon to three Cup titles, tapped Casey to drive his brand new No. 10 Dodge for 2001.
Atwood had what I would call a typical rookie season, highlighted by a pole and top-five finish at Miami. He was moved to a third car, co-owned by Evernham and Jim Smith in 2002. Atwood was never able to get his career on track and was fired before the season ended.
The reason? After Evernham’s success with a young Jeff Gordon, everybody was certain the combination of Casey and Ray would be just as good. Atwood just was not ready to be at NASCAR’s top level. The rookie success of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick didn’t help either.
The backlash? After Atwood was released fro the No. 19 car, Jeremy Mayfield took the wheel and won a few races and qualified for the Chase for The Cup on two occasions. Casey went back to the Busch series, but has not really been a contender. His best run came with the now defunct Fitz-Bradshaw Racing team at Richmond, scoring a second place finish. He is now a part time “start and park” driver in the Nationwide Series.
No. 4 Teresa Earnhardt swapping the 15 and 8 crews
This may be a little low, but this may also turn out to be the biggest goof-up in NASCAR history. After NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a serious run at the Series title in 2004, for some reason the rug was pulled from under Dale Jr. and the entire Budweiser team when Teresa swapped the teams and cars of Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip prior to the 2005 season.
The reason? Teresa was trying to improve the performance of the NAPA team and driver Michael Waltrip. The hiring of Waltrip was the last big move Dale Earnhardt himself made before his death in 2001, and everyone in the organization wanted him to win.
The Backlash? I blame Teresa’s mistake with giving Michael Waltrip all of Junior's cars and crew for Dale Jr’s. downfall. The move didn’t pay off for Waltrip, either. He was gone at the end of 2005, going winless for the second season in a row.
Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. haven't been the same since. I think this move killed Junior's confidence and led to the downfall of DEI. Dale Jr. won once in 2005 and 2006 before leaving DEI for Hendrick Motorsports following the 2007 season. The move has not paid off with only one win so far, a fuel mileage win at Michigan in 2008.
No. 3 Steve Park coming back too soon
2001 was looking like a career year for New York native, Steve Park. An emotional win at Rockingham a week after the death of his car owner, as well as a couple runner-up finishes early had Steve solidly in the top 10 points battle.
Then came Darlington on labor day weekend. While under caution, Park's steering wheel came loose, causing his car to take a sharp left turn. In a case of bad timing, Larry Foyt’s Dodge was running hard to catch up to the inside row and t-boned Steve’s driver’s side door.
The Reason? Steve survived, but did not drive for six months. During his time away Kenny Wallace took over the No. 1 car and did quite well, scoring a pole, followed up by a second place finish at Rockingham in the fall. I’m sure Park wanted to get back in his car as fast as possible.
The backlash? Fact is Steve came back too early, and he was never the same. By the end of 2003 Steve was out of Cup racing and was demoted to the truck series. Despite a win driving for Orleans Racing, Steve was never a contender again.
No. 2 Shane Hmiel destroying his own career
Shane Hmiel was well on his way to being a NASCAR star until a few run-ins with other drivers and issues with controlled substances derailed a promising career.
Shane won once in the truck series and was a weekly contender in the Busch series in 2003 and 2004. The first was an issue with Dale Jarrett at Bristol in a Busch race. After Jarrett confronted Hmiel for causing a late race crash, Shane flashed an obscene gesture toward Jarrett and later stated that if Jarrett wanted payback he had better act fast cause his career was about over. Ironically Hmiel’s career was the one that was close to being over. After failing three drug tests, Shane was given a lifetime ban in 2005.
The reason? I guess only Shane knows the reason he let his career get flushed down the toilet. It was a sad ending to a very bright future, racing at NASCAR’s top level.
The backlash? Shane has been able to get his life on track and is racing again in USAC, driving sprint cars. While we may never see him in NASCAR, there is still a chance for a happy ending for Shane. Hopefully his mistakes have kept other young drivers from walking the same path.
No. 1 Ford Letting Jeff Gordon get away
In 1991 a young driver was making a name for himself in the NASCAR Busch Series. Driving for Bill and Gail Davis in the No. 1 Ford Thunderbird, young Jeff Gordon was setting the NASCAR world on fire.
Gordon was the Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 1991. 1992 saw Gordon win three times and amass a record 11 poles driving the Baby Ruth Thunderbird. He also caught the eye of Rick Hendrick. Since Gordon was not under contract with Ford, Hendrick started a new team with sponsorship from DuPont for the 20-year-old, and the rest is history.
The reason? I guess Ford just didn’t want to pay an unproven driver the kind of money Hendrick was offering. Imagine if Gordon would have stayed with Ford?
Bill Davis also moved to the Cup Series in 1993 with Bobby Labonte, who battled with Gordon, falling short of the Rookie of the Year title. Would Jeff Gordon have been in the Maxwell House machine? Would he have been in the No. 28 after the untimely passing of Davey Allison? Would he have had as good of a career? No one will ever know.
The backlash? Eighteen years and four Cup titles later, Jeff has had one of the best careers in NASCAR history. Unfortunately for the rest of NASCAR, Gordon’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports also took the team to another level. After only scoring five wins in total from 1991-1993 (two for Ken Schrader and three for Ricky Rudd) the Hendrick organization became one of the most powerful in NASCAR history, winning nine Cup titles. (four for Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, one for Terry Labonte).