When it comes to winning traditions in NASCAR, even the most hardcore fans may not know of one that took place in Taylorsville, N.C., 30 years ago.
According to a Washington Post story at the time, when native racer Harry Gant won a race, someone ran a green-and-white Skoal Bandit Racing Team banner up the flagpole at the Alexander County Courthouse.
In September 1991, that flag got a historic work out.
Gant, the oldest driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race at age 51, put on a clinic, winning six of the seven national races held that month — four consecutive Cup Series events and two Xfinity Series races.
For his achievements, Gant became known as “Mr. September.”
As Labor Day weekend dawned, Gant had one Cup Series victory that season. Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison had each won three times.
“We were a smaller team, but I never felt like we were at a disadvantage,” said Gant’s crew chief, Andy Petree. “I felt like we were as good as they were. … We were always right there with them.”
In May, Gant won at Talladega Superspeedway when his car was running out of gas and his teammate, Rick Mast, helped push him to the checkered flag.
That win more or less represented the status quo for the No. 33 team, owned by engine builder Leo Jackson.
Gant went winless from 1986-’88. Paired with Petree and Jackson, Gant earned single wins in 1989 and ’90. Come September ’91, Gant was 10th in points. He hadn’t earned a top five in seven races.
During the Southern 500 weekend, Petree and Gant conversed in chairs outside their hauler during inspection.
“Are we just going to be the team that wins one race a year?” Petree asked Gant. “Are we ever gonna win multiple races? We need to start winning more.”
Added Petree, “I wish I had (that conversation) sooner.”
The “Lady in Black” had been good to Gant.
He’d claimed three Cup Series victories there, including the 1984 Southern 500.
After starting fifth and spending much of the afternoon chasing polesitter Davey Allison, Gant led for the first time on lap 151. He’d lead 152 laps, including the final 70.
“We thought we had them covered, but I wasn’t sure what the tires were going to do, so I hung back at the start,” Gant said. “When I decided everything was going to work, I went right to the front.”
Allison was on Gant’s bumper at the checkered flag but a lap down, the result of a throttle issue after leading 151 laps.
Winning four straight Cup Series races is hard. Petree said his team “made it way harder.”
They typically had a four-car rotation throughout a season. That month, the Bandit had one green bullet in his gun.
“Harry wanted to take (that car) to Richmond,” Petree said. “He wanted it that bad. I was one of those guys who just wanted to give him what he wants. … Leo Jackson said, ‘Well, we’ve only got one of those engines because it took 200 hours of welding on the cylinder heads to make that particular package he had. … And so we turned it around and took it up (to Richmond) and shit, man, we won again.”
Gant started 13th and again chased after Allison, who led 150 laps.
“I think this is where momentum comes in,” Petree said. “We just didn’t have that great of a setup … Harry figured it out … He’s just one of those guys that just got better and better and better during the race. … I’ve always said it was all him.”
Before Gant could win, he had to recover from a spin with 88 to go, the result of contact in a battle for the lead with Ernie Irvan and Alan Kulwicki. Amazingly, Gant advanced to second after recovering.
Despite Gant’s spin and a speeding penalty for Allison, they found each other amid the final 72-lap run. Though they battled side-by-side late, Gant didn’t take the lead until 19 to go.
“I was running as hard as I could,” Gant said. “I looked over at the board with 20 laps to go and decided to go for it.”
It was the first back-to-back Cup Series victories of Gant’s career.
During Gant’s September run, he led 1,081 laps. Allison led 623, but his Richmond result was one of two top 10s in September.
Petree “100 percent” viewed that month as going “toe-to-toe” with Allison.
He recalled one post-race engine tear down in the garage.
“(NASCAR was) tearing down the top two or three and the 28 car’s always over there,” Petree said. “Leo looks over and kind of laughs, ‘I guess we’re getting to be a pain in y’all’s ass.’”
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