Fireball's Final Triumph
by Tom Jensen November 16, 2020
In a one-off Georgia road race, Fireball Roberts took the checkered flag in a race with a grim historical footnote.
November 17, 1963
When discussing the careers of NASCAR racers, one of the most debatable topics is, “Who was the greatest driver to never win a premier series championship?”
Some will insist it was Virginia bootlegger and Hall of Famer Curtis Turner (2016), a master of car control, especially on dirt tracks. Others will swear by Junior Johnson (2010), whose 50 career race victories are the most of any driver who didn’t win a championship.
In the Modern Era, there’s certainly support for Mark Martin (2017), who was runner-up in points five times, and Denny Hamlin, who has three Daytona 500s among his 45 race wins.
Understand, there is no way to prove this argument for – or against - any one of these particular drivers. You can argue a case based on number of victories or winning percentage, but ultimately it’s all opinion.
That said, there are veteran observers out there who will swear the greatest of them all was Fireball Roberts, the Daytona Beach native with the movie-star good looks, tremendous charisma and ample talent behind the wheel.
Roberts, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2014, earned his nickname as a high-school baseball pitcher who threw a blazing fastball.
In a career cut tragically short, Roberts won 33 premier series races in 207 starts, including seven at his hometown track, Daytona International Speedway. But his final victory was one of the most unusual.
Augusta International Raceway was a 3.00-mile Georgia road course that hosted just one premier series race, the 1964 First 510, which as the name implies, was planned to be 510 miles long. With a pole speed of less than 90 mph, the race took a long, long time to run.
In fact, the onset of darkness caused NASCAR to shorten the race from 170 to 139 laps, making the final distance 417 miles, not the originally scheduled 510. Even at the shortened distance, the race took nearly 5 hours to complete.
Attrition was brutal: Just 16 of 36 cars were running at the finish, and among the victims of mechanical woes were Hall of Famers Richard Petty (2010), Junior Johnson (2010), David Pearson (2011), Buck Baker (2013), Rex White (2015) and Fred Lorenzen (2015).
Roberts had no such trouble in his Holman-Moody Racing Ford, which was powered by a V-8 engine built by Waddell Wilson (2020). Roberts finished a lap ahead of Holman-Moody teammate Dave MacDonald, followed by Billy Wade and Joe Weatherly (2015). Ned Jarrett (2011) came home fifth, ahead of Jimmy Pardue and Larry Thomas.
And in a truly macabre note, of the top seven finishers at Augusta, six died in crashes over the next 21 months. Jarrett was the lone survivor, while Thomas died in a non-race crash. But the other five all were killed on the track - or as the result of a race crash, in Roberts’ case - in 1964 or ’65.
November 16, 2014
Driving for Hall of Fame team owner and close friend Tony Stewart (2020), Kevin Harvick won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and with it the premier series championship. In the first year of the winner-take-all format, where the top finisher of the four eligible finalists becomes champion, Harvick passed Denny Hamlin on Lap 260 of 267 and held on until the checkered flag. It was Harvick’s first championship and the second for Stewart-Haas Racing, which also took the 2011 title with Stewart at the wheel. The victory was worth $346,498 and for the year, Harvick’s purse money was $12,762,411.
November 18, 1984
Today, Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick (2017) holds a record with 13 premier series team owner championships, but in 1984 he was a first-year team owner struggling to make it in NASCAR’s top division. In the final race of the season at the Riverside International Raceway road course in Southern California, Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011) appeared headed for an easy victory, but a blown tire with four laps to go knocked him out of contention. Allison’s misfortune handed the race to Geoffrey Bodine and his Hendrick-owned Chevrolet. Bodine’s third victory of the season was worth $31,900 to the driver and team.
November 19, 2005
Todd Bodine finished the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (now NASCAR Camping World Truck Series) season on a high note, winning the Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he held off three-time series champion Jack Sprague to win his fifth race of the season. The following year Bodine and the Germain Racing team would deliver Toyota’s first championship in any NASCAR national series. Both Bodine’s championship-winning truck and the one Sprague drove to victory at Daytona to open the 2007 season are featured in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Great Hall exhibit: “Haulin’: 25 Years of the NASCAR Trucks.”
November 20, 1960
The 54th and final career premier series race win for three-time champion and Hall of Famer Lee Petty came in the second race of the 1961 season, which actually took place in 1960. Driving his familiar No. 42 Plymouth, Petty was the only driver to finish on the lead lap in a 200-lap event at Speedway Park, a 0.500-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Florida. For his efforts, Petty walked away with the first-place purse of $800.
November 21, 2004
In one of the most dramatic premier series season finales of all time, Hall of Fame car owner Jack Roush (2019) walked away with both the race victory and his second consecutive championship. Roush driver Greg Biffle won the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway by a mere 0.342 seconds over race and championship runner-up Jimmie Johnson. But the big story was Kurt Busch, who lost a wheel mid-race, missed hitting the pit wall by inches and somehow managed to stay on the lead lap. Busch wound up fifth, winning the championship by finishing 8 points ahead of Johnson and 16 ahead of four-time champion and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019). Busch’s win was worth $314,850.
November 22, 1962
Here’s a true oddity: NASCAR raced at least once on Thanksgiving Day. The race was called the Turkey Day 200 and it was run at Tar Heel Speedway, a 0.250-mile paved track in Randleman, North Carolina, home base to the Petty family. The race was 200 laps – 50 miles – and it took just 1 hour and three minutes to complete. Jim Paschal drove a Petty Enterprises Plymouth to the victory, finishing two laps ahead of Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly (2015). Paschal’s victory was worth a mere $575.