by Tom Jensen October 04, 2021
Back in the day, General Motors’ Pontiac division helped Hall of Famers win big in NASCAR
Two decades ago, three future members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020 had it going on in a big way with their Pontiac race cars.
Team owner Joe Gibbs saw drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart win NASCAR premier series titles in 2000 and 2002, respectively, in their Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs.
From 1997 through the 2002 season, Joe Gibbs Racing campaigned Pontiacs for first Labonte and then Labonte and Stewart, with the two drivers combining for 30 race victories and the two championships during that time.
While the JGR squad had great success with Pontiacs, they weren’t alone among Hall of Famers: All told Pontiacs won 154 premier series races, many with Hall of Famers behind the wheel.
Here’s a chronology:
Seven of the nine premier series race victories captured by Cotton Owens (2013) came behind the wheel of Pontiacs he prepared and drove. Owens earned Pontiac’s first NASCAR victory in 1957, when he won on the Daytona Beach & Road Course.
Ace team owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick built the 1958 Pontiac that Paul Goldsmith drove to a convincing victory in the last race on the Daytona Beach & Road Course. Goldsmith started from the pole in his Yunick-prepared Pontiac and led every lap to finish five car-lengths ahead of Curtis Turner (2016).
Daytona Beach native Fireball Roberts (2014) was hard to beat at his home track, Daytona International Speedway, where his Pontiacs were always fast. Roberts won seven times in Pontiacs, including a three-race sweep at Daytona in 1962, when he won his Daytona 500 qualifying race, the Daytona 500 itself and the Firecracker 250.
On the last lap of the second World 600, David Pearson (2011) had a huge led over Fireball Roberts, and he needed it, as Pearson’s John Mason-owned Pontiac shredded a rear tire, forcing him to limp around Charlotte Motor Speedway to take the checkered flag. Pearson still finished more than two laps ahead of Roberts to score his first of 105 career race victories.
Pontiacs made a lot of noise in NASCAR in 1962, with the automaker winning 22 races and its only Manufacturers’ Championship. Driving for Bud Moore (2011), Joe Weatherly (2015) won his first of two consecutive driver titles behind the wheel of a Pontiac. Weatherly posted nine race victories, 39 top fives and 45 top 10s in 52 races to take his first title.
Although Joe Weatherly won just three races to Richard Petty’s 14 wins, the man known as “Little Joe” and “The Crown Prince of Stock Racing,” earned enough points in 1963 to win his second consecutive driver’s title. Weatherly drove for nine different team owners during the season, with all three wins coming in Moore’s cars. In his career, Weatherly won 20 races in Pontiacs.
Although Pontiac had dropped out of NASCAR temporarily by the mid-1960s, independents still occasionally raced them. In the 1969 Daytona 500, Houston racer H.B. Bailey entered this 1969 Pontiac GTO muscle car in the Great American Race. An engine failure left him 47th in a 51-car field.
The 1981 started with defending premier series champion Dale Earnhardt (2010) driving for Rod Osterlund in a Wrangler-sponsored Pontiac Grand Prix. But after Osterlund sold the team to Jim Stacy midway through the season. Earnhardt moved to Richard Childress Racing, where he drove Pontiacs for the rest of the season.
You might say this was fit for The King: With President Ronald Reagan watching live, Richard Petty won his record 200th premier series race when he edged Cale Yarborough back to the caution flag to capture the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Afterwards, the President ate fried chicken in the garage with the drivers.
It was a great first full season for premier series Rookie of the Year and future Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (2013), who finished 14th in points in 1984, posting a pair of top-five finishes and four top 10s. Wallace would go on to win 31 races in Pontiacs, most of any driver, taking his only championship in a Pontiac in 1989.
Rusty Wallace’s 1989 Pontiac is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit, which features 18 premier series championship cars.
Joe Gibbs (2020) has built a NASCAR dynasty over the last three decades, winning his first championship with Bobby Labonte (2020) in 2000. That title would be the penultimate one for the Pontiac brand. During his championship season, Labonte won four races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, two of NASCAR’s most prestigious races. He also posted 19 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes.
Few knew it at the time, but the end was near for Pontiac in NASCAR when Tony Stewart (2020) won his first premier series title as a driver and the second for team owner Joe Gibbs (2020). In 2002, Stewart won three races and finished in the top five 15 times in 36 races. The following season, Joe Gibbs Racing would switch back to Chevrolets.
Tony Stewart’s 2002 Pontiac is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit, which features 18 premier series championship cars.
The Pontiac brand won 154 times in the premier series from 1957-2003, and the final victory might have been the most remarkable. In the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch put on a show for the ages, with Craven taking the checkered flag a mere 0.002 seconds ahead of Busch. Craven’s Tide-sponsored Pontiac was owned by Cal Wells. In October 2003, Pontiac announced it was leaving NASCAR at the end of the season.
Plan your visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets by visiting nascarhall.com/tickets.