by Tom Jensen March 17, 2023
In his first NASCAR race, 22-year-old Junior Johnson defeated a 62-car field to win a 4th of July Modified Division race at Darlington Raceway.
In the more than 20 years I spent as a NASCAR editor and reporter, my favorite stories to write were about first-time winners. There’s just something magical about seeing a driver break through and win for the first time, and the emotions that inevitably flow from it.
I remember Jeff Burton’s wife, Kim, sobbing on top of the pit box at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 as her husband reeled off the final laps to win for the first time in that track’s first Cup race.
Then, on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway in 2006, Brian Vickers inadvertently took out leaders Jimmie Johnson and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Class of 2022) to claim his first victory. Three years later, Brad Keselowski prevailed at the same track, winning despite last-lap contact that sent Carl Edwards into the catch fence.
Two more unforgettable moments: Richard Petty (Class of 2010) walked longtime friend and competitor Glen Wood (Class of 2012) to Victory Lane after Trevor Bayne’s improbable 2011 Daytona 500 victory in a Wood Brothers Racing Ford, giving the team its first victory in a decade.
Just a few months later, Paul Menard held off Jeff Gordon (Class of 2019) to win the 2011 Brickyard 400, at a track where Menard’s father spent 30 years futilely trying to win the Indianapolis 500.
These and many other first-time victories were each magical in their own unique ways, never to be repeated and certainly never, ever to be forgotten.
When I think of races like these it makes me wonder what was going through Junior Johnson’s (Class of 2010) mind on July 4, 1953. On that day, Johnson entered a 1937 Ford Coupe in the NASCAR Modified Division (now Whelen Modified Tour) at Darlington Raceway, one of the fastest and most challenging circuits in the series.
The race was the first NASCAR event that Johnson entered. Just one week past his 22nd birthday, Johnson was one of 64 competitors in the race. Not only was Darlington a hard track to get around smoothly on, but the field of competitors included Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett (Class of 2011), Glen Wood (Class of 2012), Cotton Owens (Class of 2013), Buck Baker (Class of 2013), Fireball Roberts (Class of 2014), Joe Weatherly (Class of 2015) and Curtis Turner (Class of 2016). It was a stout field, to be sure.
A typical 22-year-old from the hills of rural North Carolina might have been intimidated racing on that track and against the caliber of racers in the field. Not Junior Johnson. After all, he had been hauling moonshine in his native Wilkes County since he was 14 years old.
“When I got into racing, I already had the experience I needed,” Johnson would say years later. “I didn’t have to learn how to drive fast. I already knew how to do that.”
Of course, Johnson understood a fundamental difference between racing on a track and a moonshine run: Lose on the track and you go home; lose on the moonshine run and you go to jail. Junior never was caught by the police or federal agents in a car, a fact he was proud of. Like he said, he knew how to drive fast.
And on that Fourth of July in 1953, he put on a whale of a show at Darlington, winning the 200-mile NASCAR Modified Division feature ahead of Owens, Weatherly, Banjo Matthews and 60 other drivers.
Johnson would go on to have considerable success as a driver in what we now know as the Cup Series, winning 50 races, including the second annual Daytona 500 in 1960. And once he quit driving Johnson turned his attention to team ownership, winning 132 races and six owner championships, three each with Class of 2012 Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. Add it all up and Johnson became a first ballot Hall of Famer, alongside fellow heroes and legends of the sport William H.G. France, William C. France, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Without question, Johnson had an amazing career, filled with remarkable moments.
For Johnson, like every other racer, though, there was only one first win: His came at Darlington Raceway on July 4, 1953. The trophy from that race is on exhibit in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Heritage Speedway, one of several first-win trophies in the building.