Dale Earnhardt competed in many races, but in 1991 none of them compared to the fall Cup Series race at Dover.
“I’ve never seen nothing like this race before in my life,” Earnhardt said.
Of the 40 cars entered, only 17 survived the 500-lap event. Of those, Gant was the only one on the lead lap.
After a week spent fighting a cold, Gant started 10th. Along the way, he deftly avoided a 15-car wreck on lap 69. Allison led the first 114 laps before engine problems knocked him out. Gant assumed the lead on lap 171 and led all but four of the remaining circuits.
He did that despite experiencing alternator issues.
“The alternator quit and I screwed the bulb (on the dash) out,” Gant said. “We weren’t able to run the rear-end cooler and that’s pretty rough at a track like this, but this old Oldsmobile hung in there.”
According to Petree, series director Gary Nelson made a proclamation after Gant lapped the field: “I can tell you that was the last time you’ll ever see it happen … that will never happen in this sport again.”
Nine months later, at Dover, Gant nearly did it again. In a fuel mileage race, Gant took the checkered flag as he ran out of gas. Earnhardt passed Gant to unlap himself and finish second.
Petree and the No. 33 team waited for “the other shoe to drop.” They thought it did with 123 laps left on NASCAR’s shortest track.
After a restart and with Gant having led 111-consecutive laps, Rusty Wallace dove inside Gant in turn three.
Contact sent them both around.
The front end of Gant’s Oldsmobile was bashed in, causing a severe tire rub. After pitting multiple times for repairs, Gant restarted 12th with 118 laps to go.
“As long as Harry’s still got a car rolling, you’re not out of it,” Petree said.
With an exposed right-front tire, Gant charged.
“I ran about 10 laps mad as a bull,” Gant said. “Then I calmed down because I realized it was hurting my driving.”
With 65 to go he was third. Nineteen laps later Gant retook the lead. He won by one second.
“There are 35 or 40 reasons why we might not win at North Wilkesboro,” Gant said. “But I’d sure like to win one in front of my home crowd.”
For Petree, the streak was “surreal.”
But the toll of turning a winning car around each week mounted.
“I didn’t sleep a whole lot,” Petree said. “We’re working late hours and just all the success we’re having, which is awesome, but it was a lot of pressure. … ‘How’s this gonna last?’”
There was the additional pressure of North Wilkesboro, located less than 30 miles from Gant’s hometown.
Money also factored in.
Unocal 76 paid a bonus if a polesitter won a race. The longer it didn’t happen, the higher the bonus. Going into Wilkesboro, it was more than $144,000.
“(Gant) calls me that week and he goes, ‘You know, we’re gonna win the race. We need to get the pole,’” Petree said. “We never really put much emphasis on qualifying.”
Petree told Gant he had “a few tricks” he could try.
Gant claimed the pole at 116.871 mph, edging Allison.
It was the only pole Gant and Petree earned in four seasons together.
Gant was nearing 350 of 400 laps led. A fifth straight win was near.
Then, one of the “35 or 40 reasons” Gant and Co. may not win reared itself.
Gant’s one-word cry over the radio came with about 20 laps left as Earnhardt ran second.
“What happened was, it was a people problem,” Petree said.
A front-brake line not tightened properly had been leaking slightly the whole race and there was nothing left to leak.
With nine to go, Earnhardt caught Gant and passed him. Gant finished second.
As September closed, Gant was fifth in points and led the series with five wins. Allison won two more times to tie him and Earnhardt claimed his fifth championship.
In June 2021, Kyle Larson was one turn away.
If not for a cut tire on the last lap at Pocono Raceway, Larson would have won four consecutive NASCAR Cup Series races. He’d have been the first since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
In the modern era, three drivers pulled it off before Gant: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981) and Earnhardt (1987). Gant was followed by Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993) and Jeff Gordon (1998).
Why has a feat seen relatively often 30 years ago become an anomaly?
“I think it’s the competition level,” said Petree, now vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing. “You just walk down through (the garage now), you can’t hardly take a car out of there that’s not capable of winning a race on a certain day. Back then, I would say, less than half the garage (was) capable of winning.”
Three decades later, Petree’s lasting memory of Gant’s September reign is of a “really tight-knit race team” brought even closer together.
“We had a little King Air airplane we’d fly to the races and we’d come back on Sunday nights,” Petree said. “All the shop guys would show up at the airport to celebrate with us. … And I miss that. It was really a special time.”