Photo: Harold Hinson/HHP Images

TORRES: Kirk Shelmerdine, the Unsung General of the 80s

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

When NASCAR fans think of who’s the greatest crew chief of all-time, more often than not, you’ll hear the names of Hall of Famers Ray Evernham and Dale Inman.

How about the 1980s? Tim Brewer, Jeff Hammond and Gary Nelson pop into fans heads, but one that’s been ignored lately is Kirk Shelmerdine.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced its latest nominees for the Class of 2019 on Tuesday and Shelmerdine, alongside Harry Gant, Jeff Gordon, John Holman and Ralph Moody are the newest nominees.

Shelmerdine was responsible for leading Dale Earnhardt to the promised land, winning four championships in separate two-peats (1986-87 and 1990-91).

He was the driving force in one of the sport’s best dynasties, the “Flying Aces.” Outside of calling the shots, Shelmerdine also changed Earnhardt’s front tires, joining forces with rear tire changer Will Lind, catch can man Bobby Moody, gasman Danny “Chocolate” Myers, tire carrier Horace Simpson and jack man David Smith.

When it comes to the Unocal Pit Crew Competition at Rockingham, they were unstoppable and standard bearers of what a great four-tire stop looked like in their era. Their championships from 1985 to 1988 backed up that success.

A case can be made that this squad deserves to be inducted together in the Hall of Fame if the committee began focusing on teams from certain eras, similar to the 1992 Dream Team being inducted as a group in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

With the amount of success together, why isn’t Shelmerdine considered an all-time great for his position?

Some has to do with Shelmerdine being burnt out after a disappointing 1992 campaign with Earnhardt. Another contributing factor was his underwhelming driving career.

Shelmerdine’s racing career will only be remembered for two things, winning in the ARCA Racing Series three times (including a win at Charlotte in 2003, driving for James Hylton) and bringing his underfunded black No. 27 Chevrolet home to a career-best 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500 (one of two times he took the checkered flag in 26 NASCAR Cup Series starts).

As time went by, Shelmerdine’s illustrious 16-year career calling the shots is all but forgotten.

That’s common when a crew chief has legendary driver like Earnhardt. Shelmerdine isn’t the only crew chief that’s been forgotten for their incredible careers.

Another example of a crew chief that’s criminally forgotten in today’s NASCAR world is Herb Nab, winner of 74 Cup races and two championships. His list of winners include Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Fred Lorenzen and Cale Yarborough. Why isn’t he considered?

I could discuss about Nab and other crew chiefs that are Hall of Fame worthy, but Nab isn’t nominated, Shelmerdine is. Evernham’s induction last year was a sign that NASCAR’s generals will get their deserved credit.

You have the best from the 90s in Evernham. You have the best from the 70s, maybe ever in Inman back in 2012, so why not induct arguably the top general of the 80s?

While his chances of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer are slim, Shelmerdine’s nomination is the best time to rehash his impact in the sport and what led to Earnhardt’s four of seven championships.

Before joining Richard Childress Racing in 1980, Shelmerdine’s crew chief days began in 1977 at the age of 18, leading James Hylton to 11 top-10s and a seventh-place finish in the series standings. Their next two seasons didn’t live up to par, scoring a total nine top-10s.

Once he made the move to RCR, where he spent his remaining 13 Cup seasons on top of the box, it took him awhile to find winning success. Shelmerdine was Childress’ last crew chief and he was able to lead his boss to a 10th place points finish in 1980, another early sign of leading drivers to stellar seasons.

It wouldn’t be until 1983 when Shelmerdine visited victory lane with fellow Hall of Fame nominee Ricky Rudd, scoring two wins at Riverside and Martinsville. Not only it was both Shelmerdine and Rudd’s first wins together, it was also Childress’ first glimpse in winner’s circle after failing to do so himself in 285 starts.

From that perspective, he was able to put Childress’ team on top of the NASCAR leader board. Rudd’s two wins in 1983 started his remarkable 16-year win streak, but when “The Rooster” moved to Bud Moore Engineering in 1984, the partnership was over.

Shelmerdine was then paired with Earnhardt, who drove for Moore in 1982 and 1983, but it wasn’t their first season together. They worked the final 11 races in 1981 after Earnhardt spent the first 20 races driving for Rod Osterlund, who closed operations mid-season, and controversial car owner Jim Stacy.

In their first stint, they showed some flash of brilliance, scoring six top-10s with two fourth-place finishes at North Wilkesboro and the finale at Riverside being their best effort.

The other five finishes were an eye raiser, not because the duo wouldn’t succeed, but whether or not Childress-owned No. 3 Chevrolet could run the distance without falling apart.

Right off the bat, the issue wasn’t imminent because they pulled off strong finishes and led the points standings for five straight races. Their winning ways wouldn’t take place until July 29, 1984 at Talladega when they won their first of 44 wins and it was a memorable performance.

Earnhardt snookered eventual series champion Terry Labonte on the final lap and captured his second of 10 victories at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. This race has been considered the official arrival of the “Flying Aces,” but it wouldn’t be until 1986 when they reached the top of the mountain.

While Shelmerdine led Earnhardt to a fourth-place finish in their first full-season, 1985 was a tale of two stories. They improved their win count to four and led a then career-high 1,237 laps, but nine engine failures relegated Earnhardt down to eighth in the final standings.

After a rough season, everything fell into place in 1986 and won their first title together. Not only it marked Earnhardt’s first title since 1980, it was both Shelmerdine and Childress’ first ever championship.

They won five races, scoring 16 top-five finishes and 23 top-1o finishes, and marking the first of five consecutive seasons Earnhardt was the man in the laps led category. In 1986, Earnhardt put his blue and yellow Wrangler Jeans Chevrolet in front of the field for a combined total 2,127 laps. The “Flying Aces” reign as the big dogs in NASCAR’s premiere series had begun.

What we may see with Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers if he goes 3-for-4 in the Ticket Guardian 500 at ISM Raceway on Sunday, fans saw it with Shelmerdine and Earnhardt in 1987.

They started the season off 6-for-8, including four straight victories and led an astonishing 1,614 of 3,187 possible laps (50.6%). His closest laps led competitor was Bill Elliott, leading a measly 401 laps. This span is considered by many the best season start in NASCAR history.

After their monstrous start, the duo won five more times, totaling 11 visits in victory lane. In addition to their victories, they scored 24 top-10 finishes in 29 races, 21 of them being top-five performances.

The biggest number from their captivating season was laps. Earnhardt led a grand total of 3,357 laps and completed all but 330 laps out of the 9,373 possible (96.5%). To say the “Flying Aces” were cleaning house on its competitors in 1987 is an understatement, it was an annihilation.

Their next two seasons together didn’t see dominant numbers, but they remained championship contenders. Notably, two finishes outside the top-20 in 1988 and late season fender benders with Rudd at North Wilkesboro and Rusty Wallace at Rockingham in 1989 ultimately cost Earnhardt’s chances of two more championships, finishing third in ’88 and runner-up in ’89.

At the turn of the decade, Shelmerdine and Earnhardt had already scored 30 wins and two championships, but after coming up short the past two seasons, anything but a title was unacceptable.

They didn’t have to worry about turmoil in 1990 and 1991, adding two more championships to their resume. Despite season-long battles with Mark Martin (1990) and Rudd (1991), the black GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Lumnia came out of on top.

In a span of 58 races, they visited victory lane 13 times including Earnhardt’s first ever points win at Daytona in July 7, 1990, won the pole four times (all in 1990) and finished in the top-10 44 times. Amazing time period for the duo, but little did the fans know that next season would be Shelmerdine’s last.

After finishing no worse than third the past six seasons, the duo had a miserable 1992 season. For the first time since 1984, the No. 3 Chevrolet failed to lead over 1,000 laps, leading only 483 laps. They only cracked the top-5 six times, a then career-low for Earnhardt and Shelmerdine’s fewest since 1982 with Rudd.

Shelmerdine’s final win as a crew chief came in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlottle, it was their only win that season. When the dust finally settled, the duo finished 12th in points with an average finish of 14.9, both career-worst as a pair.

With little fanfare, Shelmerdine announced his retirement as crew chief and shifted his motorsports career into driving. Meanwhile, Earnhardt won his last two championships with Andy Petree in 1993 and 1994.

Shelmerdine didn’t come back on top of the pit box until 1996, calling shots for David Green in the Busch Grand National Division (now known as the Xfinity Series), winning two races and came up 29 points short of beating Randy LaJoie for the title. It was a one-and-done season and Shelmerdine’s crew chief days were officially over.

In 460 Cup starts as a crew chief, Shelmerdine won four championships with Earnhardt, leading he and Rudd to 46 victories and scored 246 top-10 finishes with four different drivers (53.4%).

Rudd’s maiden Cup win in 1983 made Shelmerdine the youngest-winning crew chief at 25-years-old and became the youngest full-time championship-winning crew chief at 28 when he won his first title with “The Intimidator” in 1986.

In hindsight, what Shelmerdine did to the RCR program was remarkable. He turned a limited budget team into a powerhouse overnight and a good argument can be made that without Shelmerdine guiding Earnhardt, the entire sport would’ve looked drastically different.

Looking back, it was the perfect combination and the numbers don’t lie, they were tremendous. Childress and Earnhardt’s blood brother friendship was inseparable, but Shelmerdine played a pivotal role to the dynasty that’s rarely brought up by historians.

After Tuesday’s Hall of Fame nomination, it validated how I felt about Shelmerdine’s impact to the sport. Now, it’s a matter of when will Shelmerdine join Earnhardt and Childress in the Hall of Fame. It may be awhile, but when his name gets called, it’ll be a storybook ending to NASCAR’s Team of the 80s.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.