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The Win-One Cup

Benny Parsons took the season title with a single victory in 1973, and now other drivers are trying to duplicate the NASCAR feat

August 21, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

Chasing a Winston Cup driving championship isn't quite what it was 30 years ago. On the other hand, there are some parallels. Ask Benny Parsons.

The lovable teddy bear from Ellerbe, N.C., won the championship in 1973, even though he'd won only one race.

"It wasn't that big a deal, winning the championship, back then," Parsons recalled in a phone call from his home. "I think David [Pearson] won 11 races and I only won one.

"My reaction was mostly, 'Whew, it's over.' It was more a sense of relief than joy."

NASCAR didn't think it was such a big deal, either. The awards banquet was held at the Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Parsons shared the stage with two other series champions, Jack Ingram, late models, and Richie Evans, modifieds. A few years later, the awards dinner was moved to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

The disparity between Parsons' one victory and Pearson's 11 prompted Big Bill France, NASCAR's founder-czar, to call for an overhaul of the points system. The problem was the result of cherry picking by Pearson and several other leading drivers, who entered only selected big-money races, skipping most of the others. With R.J. Reynolds putting up big chunks for money for the championship, France wanted to assure that top drivers would be at all events, so he commissioned Bob Latford to devise a points scheme that would do the job.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Auto racing -- This weekend's NASCAR Sharpie 500 race will be run Saturday at Bristol, Tenn. A Sports schedule Thursday incorrectly listed the day of the race as Sunday.

Latford's proposal, which was adopted in 1975, is still in effect. However, although it virtually guarantees that all leading drivers will be in every race, it has not solved the problem of a driver's winning the championship with far fewer victories than someone else.

No one since Parsons has won the title with only one win, but Matt Kenseth is leading the 2003 race by such a wide margin that most observers are already calling him the next champion -- and he has won only one race, as have the next four drivers in the standings. Ryan Newman, who has won five, is 616 points behind in eighth place. Kenseth could sit out three races and even if Newman won them all, he would still be 61 points behind Kenseth.

"You can see the changes they made in the points didn't change much," Parsons said. "It was the money and all the attention NASCAR got from RJR and Winston that made the difference. There was so much money to be won that all the guys wanted in on it."

What occurred in the pits during the American 500 at Rockingham, N.C., where Parsons needed to hold off Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough in the year's final race to win the crown, was more gratifying to him than any hardware he received.

"We crashed on the 13th lap when I got hit by a car coming out of the second turn and it knocked the entire right side off the car, including the roll cage. We had brought extra equipment, things like rear ends, springs, bell housing, but obviously no roll bars. The car was still on the wrecker when someone noticed a car sitting in the garage that had failed to qualify, so we went and took the roll cage out of that car and put it in ours. It took a hour and 15 minutes before we got back on the track."

It also took the combined efforts of a number of mechanics from other teams. Some tore off loose sheet metal, others jacked up the car and shouted for parts. Travis Carter, Parsons' 23-year-old crew chief, estimated it would have taken two men two 20-hour days to get the car ready to race again.

When Parsons' No. 72 Chevy came rolling back on the track, the crowd of 34,000 stood and cheered. Thanks to attrition, Parsons finished 28th in the 4-hour 14-minute race, high enough to remain ahead of Yarborough, who was third. The camshaft broke on Petty's Plymouth and he was credited with 35th. Pearson won in a Mercury.

"There wasn't much drama, as I remember it," Parsons said. "I think we parked it, once we got to where we knew we had the championship in hand. It was just a relief to get it over."

After 28 races, Parsons had 7,173 points to 7,106 for Yarborough and 6,877 for Petty, who fell to fifth.

Curiously, Parsons scored his only victory with help from a relief driver, John Utsman.

"I had a pinched nerve in my neck and Bristol [Tenn.] is about the toughest track physically we ran, so I took John with me. I drove about 300 laps and he drove the other 200. It's a half-mile oval with 30-degree banking and you're only on the straightaways for about 2 1/2 seconds. Most of the time, you're fighting to keep from sliding out the door.

"It was in July, and it was blistering, and it was only four days after the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. I could never have done it all myself."

The Parsons-Utsman duo won by seven laps.

"Winning the Winston Cup is big now, but when I won the Daytona 500 in 1975, it was a much bigger deal than the championship," Parsons said.

The 500 win gave Parsons' legion of friends in the garage area another opportunity to show their respect for the big guy.

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