Let It Be: The Top Three Monumental "Breakups" in NASCAR History

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IAugust 1, 2009

4 Sep 1998:  Crew chief Ray Evernham, right, and racer Jeff Gordon look on during Winston Cup Practice prior to the NASCAR Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington International Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina.

Sir Paul McCartney said that the filming of the ill-advised documentary, Let It Be, was truly a "movie filming how to do a breakup of a band," as it chronicled the finest hours of The Beatles in 1969-70.

When music aficionados look back into the short but glorious days of The Fab Four, there's nothing but wonderful moments which are reminisced through their songs performed on LPs and tours.

To this day, you can't help but feel chills when hearing their songs, from their youthful exuberance displayed in 1963's Please Please Me with the late John Lennon's gruff, playful vocals in "Twist And Shout" to the haunting, tearful vocals of Macca in 1970's Let It Be's "The Long And Winding Road."

The music world was treated and delighted to, as Lennon put it in a 1971 Rolling Stones interview, "four guys who just got lucky."

As race fans look back at some of the finest combinations of NASCAR Cup history, there's a bit of fondness felt that is felt nearly in the same vein of Liverpool's proud sons.

From crew chief and driver teamings to sponsorship and team marriages, NASCAR has seen its fair share of memorable "bands" in its 61-year history.

Old school race fans are quick to point out such great pairings like Richard Petty and his cousin Dale Inman, who arguably wrote the NASCAR history book that neophytes and liturgists follow to this day.

Petty and Inman established records which will prove nearly impossible to break, even with the finest of didactic relationships in these days of racing.

With 198 race victories and seven Cup championships through three decades of racing, it's unlikely that their outstanding successes will be broken at any point unless the race schedule is longer with shortened events.

For over 30 years, fans and competitors were delighted and blown away by the famous No. 43 car, adorned with its trademark Petty Blue paint scheme which were later "matched' up with STP's red colors.

Petty Enterprises had it all with the best of matchings, from its liveries, sponsorship/team relationship to the driver and crew chief department, which ran arguably on all eight cylinders until those last twenty years of obscurity from 1988 to 2008.

STP had departed the team from its primary sponsorship role in 2000, opting to give General Mills' banner cereal "Cheerios" its moment in the asphalt until the 2008 season, when it flocked over to Richard Childress Racing's No. 33 unit with driver Clint Bowyer.

The performance of Petty Enterprises was embarrassing, at best, during its last moment in the sport.

No longer the winner that he once was after the 1984 season, Petty's performance dwindled to nothing more but a sentimental field filler who gracefully retired following the conclusion of the '92 season.

Nevertheless, the STP/Petty and Inman relationship proved to be something like the sport's version of The Beatles.

Consider this: the famous No. 43 car raced through the turbulent 1960s, the groovy 1970s, the new wave/romantic times of the 1980s and early times of the '90s as an established racing force.

While fans marvel at Petty's incredible 1967 season which saw "The Squirrel" win 27 times, what's more remarkable was how the North Carolinian consistently contended for victories from the 1960s to early '80s.

Another racing dynasty that saw its best days was the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet team. Yep, I'm talking about the one with the late Dale Earnhardt, team owner Childress, and crew chiefs Kirk Shelmerdine and Andy Petree.

Unlike Petty, Earnhardt contended with changes throughout his racing career. Once driving for nice guy Rod Osterland's No. 2 entries, "The Intimidator" migrated to RCR's No. 3 Wrangler Buick when the former sold his team to shady coal entrepreneur J.D. Stacy.

For the better half of the 1980s, Earnhardt established his first memorable association when sponsor and clothing company Wrangler signed on board with the No. 15 Ford team owned by World War II veteran Bud Moore in 1982.

Wrangler's demographic for the "tough, gritty" customer was established quite perfectly with a driver who proved to be rough around the edges with his racing etiquette, or lack there of one, with Earnhardt.

Whenever that blue and yellow stock car was trailing the leaders, "Old Ironhead" made sure to instill fear with his competitors.

Considering that he roughed up the psych and feathers of guys like Petty, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, and Darrell Waltrip, the second-generation driver gave racing fans and Wrangler plenty of notice.

Whether or not Moore had enough of Earnhardt's antics on the track, their short marriage ended in 1983.

Their rather quick tenure saw three victories, 16 top-fives, and 26 top-10 finishes in 60 races with a best finish of eighth in points in '83.

Little did racing fans know that starting in 1984, another racing legend and epic was starting with Earnhardt signing on board to drive Richard Childress' No. 3 Chevrolet.

Along with the 33-year-old, Childress also got a new sponsor in Wrangler, which created a menacing identity in the blue and yellow Monte Carlo.

Immediately, the triumvirate proved successful.

1984 saw the trio land two wins, 12 top-fives, and 22 top-10s in 30 events, translating to a fourth-place championship result.

RCR, Earnhardt, and Wrangler hit a rough spot in 1985, when nine DNFs offset their four triumphs, 10 top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes resulting in another eighth place finish in the title hunt.

Racing fans and critics had to feel that Earnhardt, who won the 1980 championship as a sophomore in the sport, was simply too aggressive to win another title.

Sure, he was a winner, but did he have the balance in aggression and calculating skills to become an all-around champion?

To answer it in short, how does a "resounding yes" sound?

From 1986 to 1995, another NASCAR dynasty was established and soundly recorded in the audio, visual, and textual record books.

Wranger's last two years in the sport were quite memorable for the clothing company, which saw 16 victories, 37 top-fives, and 47 top-10s in 58 races.


Try two NASCAR Winston Cup championships and the emergence of Earnhardt and his genius crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, who aided the Kannapolis, N.C., hero to four of his seven driver's titles.

In 1988, the blue and yellow colors of Wrangler departed from RCR, paving the way for the black, white, red, and silver colors of GM Goodwrench to the forefront of that No. 3 car.

New nicknames came out for Earnhardt as a result of his team's new sponsor. No longer was he "One Tough Customer" or "Old Ironhead."

"The Man In Black" and "The Intimidator' monickers were established, with RCR's cars piloted by Earnhardt proving to be as daunting as something of the Imperial Forces of Darth Vader and company.

It did not matter who you were on the track. If you were Petty, Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, or Jeff Gordon, you had to watch out for the black No. 3.

Otherwise, you'd be one of his many victims long before the checkered flag unfurled, and you could damn well bet that the race your car was crunched was won by Earnhardt.

Just ask Marlin, who was leading the spring race at Bristol in 1987 when he was one of the many victims gobbled up by the No. 3 car that season.

"He's gotta learn to try to pass other cars and not spin them out," Marlin said following his crash in the April 12th running of the Valleydale 500.

From '88 to his last "great" year of 1995, Earnhardt and Goodwrench won 40 times, which included 121 top-five finishes, and 166 top-10 finishes that resulted in four titles.

Two of those were won with Shelmerdine, who left the team following the '92 campaign to pursue a driving career, while the final two were won with Leo Jackson's student in Petree.

Just as fans did not know that Earnhardt's coming out party as a legend would commence in 1984, little did they know that starting in 1996, that dynasty would come to its final, glorious times.

Petree would return back to Jackson's No. 33 Skoal Bandit Chevy entry, basking in the '96 season as the successor to his racing team for the following season.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt, Goodwrench, and Childress started to show the wear and tear of their final years.

Injuries, crashes and an array of problems befell the No. 3 camp, thus prompting them to go from perennial champions to a team where their fans just hoped they'd win a race.

Fortunately, the trio only experienced a single winless campaign which came in 1997 and a fifth-place finish in points.

Sadly, that elusive and record-breaking eighth title for Earnhardt would prove fruitless for the popular driver.

Coming close to a title in his last full season with a runner-up effort in 2000, Earnhardt and the Goodwrench/RCR team were looking forward to an even better 2001 season.

With a new TV contract that saw FOX Sports, NBC and TNT airing the races, there was plenty of buzz surrounding the season opener of that year's Daytona 500 festivities.

Unfortunately, the beginning of a promising year came to a hard, crashing conclusion on the last lap of "The Great American Race."

Fans cheered as once winless, hard-luck driver Michael Waltrip, driving for Earnhardt's No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet, crossed the stripe as a victor.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., or "Little E," came home with a second-place finish in a record-breaking event in one of the greatest Daytona 500s of all-time.

Tragically, Earnhardt would lose his life behind the wheel of that beloved and once seemingly tough No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy, impacting the third turn wall.

Tears and disbelief were felt nationwide at the loss of a racing hero, knowing all too well that the death of Earnhardt not only meant the last ever race of the black No. 3 Chevrolet, but the end of a dynasty in such a tragic fate.

All told, the Earnhardt and Childress pairing saw 68 wins, six titles, 227 top-five results, and 374 top-10 finishes, which will surely be Hall Of Fame numbers for this collective.

If Petty was "The King" and Earnhardt was "The Intimidator," then Jeff Gordon was truly "The Kid" and "The Rainbow Warrior" who completed this amazing trio of championships.

New school fans look back on Gordon's pairing with crew chief and New Jersey native Ray Evernham as one of the greatest to ever compete in the sport.

From their first taste of championship racing with the No. 1 Baby Ruth Ford entry fielded by Bill Davis Racing during the 1992 NASCAR Busch Grand National Series season to their last race together in the 1999 MBNA Gold 400 at Dover Downs International Raceway, modern era records were rewritten by these "Damn Yankees."

In what you'd call a twist of fate, the dynamic duo came to fruition because of dissension with Evernham and driver/team owner Alan Kulwicki during the '92 Speedweeks at Daytona.

Citing creative differences, the two headstrong men dissolved their relationship rather quickly, with Evernham deciding to quit the NASCAR scene all together.

Ford Racing officials saw Evernham leaving the garage area, pouncing on a chance to convince the 36-year-old mechanic to stick around the sport to aid an upcoming star from Vallejo, Calif. and his No. 1 team.

Having met in '89 when Gordon made his maiden voyage in NASCAR driving for Hugh Connerty's No. 67 Outback Steakhouse Pontiac in Rockingham, N.C., perhaps Evernham knew what he was getting into with this youngster who carried a video game, racing magazine, and cell phone in his suitcase.

Maybe that initial meeting left a lasting impression with Evernham, who with Gordon, rewrote the standards of a winning team.

Never had the concepts of pit stops, pit strategies, and an almost NFL-like coaching discipline with a quarterback/driver looked so masterfully composed like the way Evernham and Gordon performed in their seven years.

Innovative concepts like a team engineer, pit stop practices during the race week at the shop, and an unforeseen motivation with the No. 24 team were some of the contributions brought to NASCAR.

For those who forgot "The Rainbow Warrior's" checklist banner of success, it was written in the following:

  • From Nobody To Upstart
  • From Upstart To Contender
  • From Contender To Winner
  • From Winner To Champion
  • From Champion To Dynasty

Evernham cited that inspiration from renowned NBA head coach Pat Riley, who wrote the checklist in his famous book The Winner Within: A Life Plan For Team Players.

Having witnessed the success of the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, Riley scripted the concept of a team effort like a religious scripture.

Studying the philosophies of Riley, Evernham implemented the former's tactics with the No. 24 team, propelling Hendrick Motorsports from a respectable, multi-car team to a winning machine.

For as much praise and glory that Gordon received during those years from '92 to '99, Evernham deserved as much credit for the work ethic and particulars he paid close attention to with his team.

Car owner Rick Hendrick recognized this and elevated Evernham to become the Team Manager of the No. 25 Budweiser team in 1996.

While some say that Evernham's promotion hindered the No. 24's chances of defending their title in '96, others felt that his new position only meant that the crew chief was reaching a higher level of acceptance and responsibility.

In any case, the No. 24 surely suffered in 1996, only winning 10 races and collecting 21 top-fives and 24 top-10s in the 31 race season. Yep, the DuPont Refinishes team was out of it.


Wrong is spelt with 1997 and 1998, when the duo won 23 races and tallied 48 top-fives saddled up with 51 top-10s in 65 races which were awarded with two championships.

Those two years were simply astonishing and spelt out a great career that could have simply ended after the '98 season.

NASCAR simply was Gordon's game which he could simply toy around with the field, as long as he drove Hendrick's No. 24 car and had Evernham as his crew chief.

Just as The Beatles had grown individually, Gordon and Evernham suddenly felt their relationship had hit an impasse.

Critics cited Gordon's success in part by Evernham's rigid but effective leadership. Without Evernham, Gordon would be a mere mortal on the track.

Others felt that Gordon made Evernham into the winning crew chief in NASCAR, believing that such success outside of "The Wonderboy" would be hard to come by outside of the HMS facilities.

Whatever the motivation or reason, Evernham was successfully courted by Daimler-Chrylser to reboot the Dodge efforts in NASCAR.

No longer was Evernham going to be Gordon's loyal father figure or the catalyst behind one of the greatest racing dynasties of all-time.

Instead, he was going to be a true leader in the ultimate degree. Ultimately, he proved marginally successful on his own, establishing the Dodge brand back into the Cup racing scene and accumulating some success as a team owner with drivers Bill Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield, and Kasey Kahne.

As for Gordon, he won the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup championship with successor Robbie Loomis behind the "Fire and Flames" scheme of the DuPont Chevrolet.

Prior to the fiery scheme was the controversial but popular rainbow scheme, which Gordon drove to 52 victories, 129 top-five finishes, and 166 top-10 showings.

Despite the changes in crew chiefs and pit crews in his 18 seasons of Cup racing, Gordon's two constants are being employed by Hendrick and his sponsorships with DuPont and Pepsi.

Perhaps my list of ultimate breakups is different from yours, but what's certain is that these three legends left their mark in NASCAR's history books.

Petty was one of the good boys, whereas Earnhardt was the roughneck with a family man's heart.

Gordon was the new kid on the block who has learned to truly accept himself on and off-the-track as an outsider that has gained acceptance in his latter years in the sport.

You simply cannot write or discuss about their achievements without some fondness and memories bound to make any race fan smile, no matter where you are in the world.

Just as John, Paul, George, and Ringo are immortalized in Cleveland's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Museum and various cultural reference materials, you can be assured this triumvirate will have their rightful place in the archives long after these days.

All good things truly do come to an end at one point. And when they do, perhaps remember it as those four lads put it:

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.

Writer's Note: I am dedicating this article to the late Corazon "Cory" Aquino, who was the first female President of the Philippines.

Championing the rights of the Filipinos during a period where instability was waged and human rights were anything but that, Aquino, in her late husband's name, led the battle peacefully into the streets of Manila in those early months of 1986.

Installed as President in February 1986, Aquino's legacy is not so much her tenure as the most powerful leader of the country, but rather, her unwavering dedication to the people of the nation.

Aquino was losing against her ultimate battle with colon cancer, which she battled with for the better part of 2008 and '09.

She passed away at 3:18 a.m. Manila time in Makati, Metro, Manila with her family by her side and a nation that currently mourns with those that were touched by this remarkable woman.

I cannot help but feel their sadness, but I wish to celebrate her life and beliefs with my latest piece. May you rest in peace, "Tita" Cory.

Love and mercy tonight.


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