By David Morgan, Associate Editor
As the Beatles’ song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
If there was one line from a song that illustrated the final laps of the 1991 Winston 500 at Talladega, it would be that one after a controversial push from teammate Rick Mast helped ensure teammate Harry Gant had enough fuel to make it to the finish and claim the victory.
As the second half of the 188-lap race played itself out, fuel mileage would be the name of the game to decide who would be the winner that day in early May. Harry Gant made his final pit stop on lap 132 and would be attempting to make that tank of fuel last to the checkers.
While Gant was playing the fuel mileage card, his two biggest competitors, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were hoping sheer speed would be the ticket. After making their final stops with 20 laps to go, the two drivers, who had been working together before pitting, reconnected on the track and set their sights on making up the ground between themselves and the leaders.
As car after car ducked off onto pit road, Gant’s No. 33 Leo Jackson owned entry took over the lead with 11 laps to go, falling in behind the Mast, who was running a lap down in 10th after being involved in a crash earlier in the day. The two Skoal Bandit sponsored Oldsmobiles ran nose to tail with Mast leading the way until the next to last lap when they switched positions.
Warned that Mast could not push Gant across the line and he would have to finish under his own power, the two bump drafted for the final 2.66 miles, with Mast giving Gant a shot to the rear bumper and then disconnecting to circumvent NASCAR’s warning.
A final push through the tri-oval shoved Gant away just enough for the two to cross the line with some daylight between them, delivering Gant the 12th win of his career and first at Talladega.
Waltrip and Earnhardt finished second and third, but were some 11 seconds behind when the checkered flag flew.
“We just tried to stay out of trouble and stay at the back and just getting the gas mileage after we made the stop there,” Gant said from Victory Lane. “They said we could go all the way if we saved fuel. The whole last 40 laps I was running like half throttle in that draft and if somebody wanted by, I just let them go by because I didn’t want to use the fuel and then it started running out on me.
“With five to go, the fuel pressure started fluctuating. Rick had backed off a lot. He and I were probably running a little over half throttle there. Then he pulled over and let me by and he had to bump me a lot of times to get me on around the last lap.”
In a segment of The Dale Jr. Download podcast last year, Mast gave a play by play on how everything went down during those final laps and even the drama that came afterwards.
“We had been in a mishap and I was running along by myself,” Mast recalled. “Harry was in a group. Everybody pitted and Harry stayed out by himself. Then me and Harry got hooked up. They said ‘Rick get behind Harry. He might run out of gas. You might have to help him.’ So, I got behind him and sure enough with a couple of laps left I see black smoke come out and I punch him. I punched him, especially the last lap, maybe seven or eight times, but each time I’d punch him, the thing would light up and he’d do that (motions forward) and the black smoke would roll and I’d punch him again.
“Anyhow, he won the race and I get out of my car and there are more people around me than there are around him. I’m sitting there lying my ass off: ‘No, I didn’t help him. I didn’t help him…’ (Harry’s) up there on national television saying ‘Boy, I don’t know what I would have done if Rick hadn’t been there to push me.’
The finish of the race had been called into question due to a protest by runner-up finisher Darrell Waltrip, alleging Mast had pushed Gant to the finish. In order to sort things out, a meeting was called at the NASCAR hauler with all the parties involved.
“We get called to the red truck,” Mast said. “Me and Richard Jackson, my car owner. There sits (Dick) Beaty, there sits Darrell, and two or three other people. Darrell’s just mad because he finished second. He’s wanting Harry disqualified. ‘You can’t push a man. Rick Mast you pushed him…’ I said what do you have me in here for guys? Beaty asks did you push him. I said I bumped him a little bit. I didn’t push him. Look at the start/finish line, I wasn’t anywhere near him.
“Darrell wouldn’t let it go. He was mad. Screaming, cussing, hollering, just going on.”
While Mast, Waltrip and the NASCAR officials were meeting in the hauler, more drama was playing out back in the garage as Dale Earnhardt’s team had called foul on Waltrip’s rear spoiler.
“About that time, the door opened and Jeff Hammond (Waltrip’s crew chief) steps in,” Mast continued. “He says ‘Darrell, we’ve got a little problem. You need to come out here, we’ve got a problem.’ Darrell says ‘I ain’t coming out the door, you tell me what the problem is.’
“Well, the car is over in the inspection line and their spoiler is 11 degrees low. That’s a ton. In those days, the spoiler is set and sometimes we would sneak it. If your car could take it, you’d sneak them down, or sometimes up. Well, they had snuck it down sometime during the race, which made it illegal.”
Turns out that new issue was all it took to get Waltrip to drop his protest and for NASCAR to conclude that there wasn’t any foul play involved between the teammates in the final run to the finish.
“(Hammond) shut the door and left and we all just sat there for a minute,” Mast said of how the meeting wrapped up. “Beaty turned around a looked at Darrell and said ‘What do you think, Darrell?’
“Darrell sat there maybe 10 seconds and said ‘You know what fellas? That Harry, he’s a hell of a driver. I’ll see y’all next week!’ and out the door he goes.”
Gant’s Talladega win was just a prelude to what he had in store when September rolled around. Over the course of four weeks, Gant captured four wins in a row and the legend of Mr. September was born.