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10 Greatest Substitute Drivers in NASCAR History


With the flurry of press releases that were flying about last Friday, with the announcements and retractions regarding Mark Martin substituting for the injured Denny Hamlin, it brought to light one issue we haven’t had to tackle in a while: NASCAR Super Subs. They can be much more than a wheel holder, and often end up becoming a larger part of the team. It can be an audition for a future ride, or a once-in-a-lifetime shot at greatness. This week we present the Top 10 Super Subs in NASCAR:

1. Tiny Lund for Marvin Panch — 1963 Daytona 500
Before Chrysler’s Hemis were running roughshod around Daytona, it was Ford that ruled the roost at Daytona. Marvin Panch was the Wood Brothers driver in the No. 21 that year, and was competing in a sports car race not unlike today’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. He was involved in an accident that saw his Ford-powered Maseratti flipped over and engulfed in flames. Fellow driver and friend Tiny Lund (who stood 6’5 and 270 lbs) saw this happen and ran to the scene, wrestling Panch from the wreckage. Panch, burned and hospitalized, insisted that Lund, who was shopping around for a ride, be his replacement driver in the 500. Tiny did not disappoint, leading 17 laps and the first of five Fords across the finish line to win the Daytona 500. Lund was also awarded the Carnagie medal for heroisim, for risking his life to save Panch.

2. David Pearson for Dale Earnhardt – 1979 Southern 500
David Pearson will perhaps be best known as the driver of the No. 21 Purolator sponsored Wood Brothers Mercury and Fords of the 1970s (even though he won his three championships and over half of his wins driving for Cotton Owens and Holman-Moody). But following a botched pit stop at the 1979 Rebel 500 at Darlington, Pearson split from the Wood Brothers and hooked up with newcomer Rod Osterlund, piloting his No. 2 – gulp – Chevrolet, subbing for his injured rookie driver, Dale Earnhardt. With Jake Elder turning the wrenches, the team was instantly a contender. In their four races together with Pearson they posted a second at Talladega, fourth at Michigan, seventh at Bristol and capped it off with a win at Pearson’s best and home state track — and the site where everything went wrong a few months earlier — the Southern 500 in Darlington, SC.

3. Jamie McMurray for Sterling Marlin — 2002 GM-UAW 500 at Charlotte

2002 was the year that Jamie McMurray became a race car driver for real. While running a full-schedule as a Busch Series regular with the No. 27 Brewco Motorsports team, he was eighth in points, yet over 600 markers out of the lead. On the Cup side, Sterling Marlin was enjoying a career year, leading the points through race No. 29 of 36 at Kansas, when he sustained a “broke neck” (as Sterling would say) in an accident. McMurray was tabbed to fill the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge in the interim and after an unremarkable 26th-place finish at Talladega, the youngster broke through to win the very next week at Charlotte in only his second Cup Series start.

4. Dale Jarrett, Robert Yates Racing — 1995
While Ernie Irvan was battling to keep alive and recover following the injuries he sustained in a crash at Michigan in 1994, Robert Yates Racing was tasked with keeping the operation afloat. It had been almost exactly the year before when they lost Davey Allison following a helicopter accident in Talladega. RYR had tried a host of substitute drivers during the ’93 and ’94 seasons (Robby Gordon, Lake Speed, Kenny Wallace). In 1995, they opted for a full-time fill-in with some credentials — among them a Daytona 500 win in 1992. Dale Jarrett’s audition was a steady one; in a year that saw Chevrolet’s new Monte Carlo beating up on the competition, Jarrett posted a win at Pocono, nine top 5s and 14 top 10s. Irvan returned to the Texaco car in ’96, but Jarrett had earned his rightful place in RYR’s No. 88 — and another Daytona 500 win started the season. Thus began one of the most successful driver and team tandems of the last 20 years.

5. Tommy Kendall for Kyle Petty – Sonoma, 1991
Back before he was the master of unfiltered honesty and analysis, Kyle Petty was a pretty fair race car driver who was coming into his own in the early 1990s. Driving for Felix Sebates, Petty was off to a career year in ’91, when he broke his leg in a nasty crash at Talladega in May. This was during a time when “road course ringers” were all the rage at Cup races for teams needing a good finish or owners looking to cash in on left-turn-only guys’ inexperience. Tommy Kendall was one of the premier road racers in the world at the time, and was tabbed to sub for the injured Petty. Kendall was trying to hold off Mark Martin with two laps to go, but took him out and succumbed to a cut tire from his action. The events ended up handing the win to Davey Allison, after Ricky Rudd took out Ernie Irvan coming to take the white flag. Kendall would suffer his own injuries just a few weeks later at Watkins Glen in an IMSA GTU race, nearly cost him both of his legs. Although Kendall would later win three straight TransAm titles for Jack Roush, it was this incident with Martin that prevented him from ever getting a NASCAR ride in one of Jack’s Fords.

6. Darrell Waltrip for Steve Park – 1998 Pocono 500
In the late 1990s, Darrell Waltrip was at a bit of a crossroads. His Western Auto-sponsored team went belly up, he sold the operation to an owner who would eventually turn out to be a tax felon and he was reduced to substitute roles for the likes of Todd Bodine and a rookie named Steve Park. Park was severely injured during a practice crash at Atlanta in 1998, and team owner Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed a veteran driver to keep his fledgling DEI operation going to satisfy sponsor Pennzoil. Enter proto-enemy Waltrip. DW subbed for 13 races — needing to use a Champion’s Provisional to make it into four of them – but once the races started, it became clear that placing a proven champion in decent equipment with a young team could pay dividends. Included in the partnership was this near-win at Pocono. “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” might get a little old, but this clip never fails to tug at the heart strings.

7. Kenny Wallace for Steve Park –Rockingham, 2001 
2001 was supposed to be NASCAR’s greatest season with a new network television contract that, after 50 years, proved NASCAR was finally on par with the NFL, MLB and NBA on the national stage. On the final lap of its greatest race, however, it lost its greatest driver in Dale Earnhardt Sr. The team he owned, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., suffered further disaster early in the year when Steve Park was critically injured in a freak accident under caution in a Busch Grand National race at Darlington. Kenny Wallace, known to most as the animated analyst on SPEED, was tabbed to substitute for Park in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolets for 12 races. It nearly came together for the outfit at Rockingham in October — the site of Park’s last win in February — when Wallace put it on the pole and led for 101 laps only to be passed by Joe Nemechek late in the going, coming home second.

8. Robby Gordon for Mike Skinner – 2001 New Hampshire 300
Before Jimmie Johnson was wheeling the Lowe’s Chevrolet to five straight championships, it was Mike Skinner who carried the colors for the home improvement giant for Richard Childress Racing. After suffering a concussion at Chicagoland in 2001, he was injured again later in the year and missed the last seven races. Robby Gordon filled in for Skinner starting at Watkins Glen and had the race well in hand until NBC’s in-car camera battery blew up and smoked him out of the cockpit, forcing Gordon to pull over and bail. In the final race of the year, a rescheduled Loudon event stemming from 9/11, Gordon earned the first Cup win of his career. And he did so in grand fashion, nerfing Jeff Gordon out of the way with 15 laps to go, similar to the bump ‘n’ run that Gordon used on Rusty Wallace a couple of times at Bristol. Robby Gordon would go on to drive RCR’s No. 31 Chevy from 2002-04.

9. Mark Martin for Ernie Irvan — 1994 Food City 250 
Mark Martin is not new to this substitute-driving thing. In 1994, following Ernie Irvan’s aforementioned Michigan crash, Martin helped his friend out by running his Busch Grand National car in the August event at Bristol. Martin qualified 17th and brought it home in 10th position. Upon Irvan’s return that saw him wearing a patch over one eye, Martin paid Irvan perhaps the ultimate compliment: “Ernie driving with one eye is still better than most of these guys with two.”

10. Jimmy Hensely for Alan Kulwicki – 1992 
Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the passing of Alan Kulwicki. The 1992 Winston Cup champion, along with three others, was killed in a plane crash in ’93 following a sponsor event in East Tennessee. While his team transporter circled Bristol and took the checkered flag before exiting, it returned a week later at North Wilkesboro, with assistance from Felix Sabates. Jimmy Hensley would take over driving duties on ovals, while Tommy Kendall filled in on road courses. Hensley performed admirably, posting a pair of top 10s under what were near-impossible circumstances. Kulwicki had identified Hensely as the amn he wanted to take over for him should anything ever happen. It was an odd choice, as Hensely did not know Kulwicki personally. He would tell legendary journalist Tom Higgins, “Every time I saw Alan, especially at racetracks, he appeared to be concentrating so hard and was so deep in thought that I didn't want to bother him — I didn't want to interrupt.”

by Vito Pugliese
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