Feature Story

Better Days In Wally's World

HARRISBURG, N.C. - - After four events in 1999, it's safe to say that Wally Dallenbach and the #25 Budweiser team are in a better position than they were in a year ago at this time. Despite a recent blown engine at Atlanta, the Hendrick Motorsports #25 team, along with its driver, seems to be on the verge of being a weekly contender. The #25 car at Hendrick Motorsports has been a fixture since 1986. It was a perennial winner through the 80's and early 90's. However, in recent years the results have been less than stellar.

It began as a second Hendrick team in 1986 with Tim Richmond behind the wheel. In Richmond's first season in the #25 Chevrolet, he won seven races and finished third in the points standings. Sponsored by Folgers, they looked like the team to beat in 1987. However, Richmond's health began failing late in 1986 and he was forced to sit out the first half of the 1987 season. He returned in June 1987 and won his first race back at Pocono. He also won the following week at Riverside. But, by mid-summer, the effects of the AIDS virus had weakened him and he resigned from Hendrick Motorsports in September 1987. The team that looked to be on the verge of a championship was suddenly in a state of flux.

Hendrick Motorsports
Ken Schrader came in to drive the #25 car starting in 1988. He won the pole position for the Daytona 500 three consecutive seasons in 1988, 1989, and 1990. He also won the Busch Clash in 1989 and 1990. At Dover in 1991, he won his fourth race for Hendrick Motorsports. Nobody could have foreseen that it would be his final victory for the team. The sponsor changed from Folgers to Kodiak and later to Budweiser. Schrader's seasons at HMS were marked by consistency; he was always in a position to win but for whatever reason, never seemed to be the one in victory lane at the end of the day. The ultimate disappointment beset Schrader when his engine blew while leading the closing laps at Charlotte in 1996. He departed after that season and Ricky Craven was hired to drive the Budweiser #25 car.

Craven had been a standout racer in the Busch North series and had ventured south several years before. He finished second in the Busch standings in 1994 and made the jump to Winston Cup the following season. He spent two seasons driving the #41 Larry Hedrick-owned Chevrolet, picking up a pole position and the rookie of the year award. Late in 1996, the "opportunity of a lifetime" came to him when he was hired by HMS. Craven lasted a little more than a year with the organization. He posted impressive finishes to start 1997 but was injured after a practice crash at Texas. Whether he came back too soon after the crash is up for debate, but he never posted the consistent finishes for the rest of 1997 that he did earlier in the season. Four races into the 1998 season, Craven took time off to recover from post-concussion syndrome. "I felt like I was ready when I got back in the car after the crash in Texas (in 1997)," Craven said. "It was something that didn't seem that serious and I thought it would go away. Looking back, obviously it affected my performance more than I realized." Randy Lajoie filled in for awhile and did an admirable job posting a few top 10 finishes. In May, the team brought in journeyman driver Wally Dallenbach.

Dallenbach was a former Trans Am champion and four time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car event. He had raced stock cars since 1991, but had little success save for a few decent efforts on road courses. He drove for Jack Roush, Richard Petty, Bud Moore, and Felix Sabates over the years.

With the #46 Sabates-owned First Union team in 1998, he failed to qualify at both Daytona and Rockingham to begin the season. If that wasn't bad enough, finishes of 38th at Las Vegas and 39th at Atlanta soon followed. Robert Yates has said that, "In racing, the engine is everything." When a car blows an engine, the best driver in the world will still get a DNF. Engine problems hindered the #46 team from the outset in 1998. At Talladega, Sabates released Dallenbach.

An avid outdoorsman, Dallenbach was on a hunting trip when Hendrick Motorsports called to see if he was available to fill in until Craven came back. He debuted in Charlotte but it was his performances in June that caught the attention of many in the sport. At Michigan, he ran in the top 10 all day and finished tenth. Another top 10 finish at Pocono soon followed. However, by July, Craven was ready to return to the team.

Expectations were high as Ricky Craven won the pole position at Loudon in his first race back with the Budweiser team. However, he finished several laps down in the event and after a number of unremarkable finishes, Craven resigned from Hendrick Motorsports in August. Some talked about the "curse of the 25 car" at work. Can a team be cursed?

Dallenbach, who had been running the #13 Ford owned by Bill Elliott, returned to the Budweiser team for the remainder of 1998. Several weeks later, he was announced as the full-time driver for 1999.

The 25 team was bolstered by the additions of Dave Charpentier late in 1998 and Slugger Labbe during the off season. Charpentier had been Rick Mast's crew chief while Labbe had worked with Kenny Irwin in 1998. Along with current crew chief Tony Furr, the team was poised for a strong start to 1999. Budweiser announced that it would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports following the 1999 season to sponsor a neophyte team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. During 1999, Budweiser promotions have focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is that fair to Dallenbach? Of course not. It's no different than any other Winston Cup season for him though. One constant in Dallenbach's career has been the need for him to run well enough to impress a car owner, sponsor, or potential sponsor. With his future at Hendrick Motorsports secure, running well enough to attract a new major sponsor is the current goal.

The storm clouds that surrounded the team for so long seemed to part at the beginning of the 1999 season. Finishes of 12th at Daytona, 17th at Rockingham, and 13th at Las Vegas to start the 1999 season vaulted Dallenbach into the top ten in the Winston Cup points standings. At Atlanta, while running in the top ten, Dallenbach's engine blew resulting in a DNF. Nevertheless, the team is competitive to start the season; that's about all that anyone could have asked for. "We've been consistent, and that's a big change from last year," Dallenbach said. "Last year, we had some really good races and in some races we were really bad. We need to be pretty good at every race and then jump at the opportunities when they're there to go for a win. We need to come out every week in the top 15. If we do that, we'll be in the top 10 in the points."

In 1999, Wally Dallenbach and the Budweiser team both have something to prove. They're both working to bring the #25 Chevrolet to the place it belongs; victory lane at a Winston Cup track.

Previous features

Jeff Gordon Online

Copyright 1999 Jeff Gordon Online.
Do not duplicate or redistribute
without the author's permission.
All Rights Reserved.