We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Five biggest cheaters
We’re not quite to the halfway point of our series of NASCAR 75 top-five greatest lists, but we can see the crossed flags off in the distance … or wait … is that a black flag telling us to pull into the pits and serve a penalty? Because after looking at drivers, races and cars, it’s time to turn the microscope on those who worked tirelessly to enter those drivers and cars into races by sneaking things past NASCAR tech inspectors. The crew chiefs and engineers who lived their racing lives in the gray area of the rulebook.
Yeah, I’ll say it. Cheaters. But when I say “cheaters,” understand what the paddock already does, that you can’t apply a stick-and-ball definition of “cheater” (see: Patriots, Astros, etc.) to a racer.
The greatest NASCAR teams and mechanics wear that title as a badge of honor. Sure, getting caught might lead to fines and penalties and embarrassment, but those are all temporary. The garage glory comes in the winks and nods and pats on the back from rivals as they say, “Dude, way to push the limits. I wish I had thought of that!”
So, grab a bottle of tire softener and a can of nitrous disguised as a fire extinguisher and read ahead as we present our top-five greatest cheaters in NASCAR history.
Honorable mention: Glenn Dunnaway
Poor Dunnaway went from historic hero to timeless goat in the matter of one postrace inspection — the very first postrace inspection in NASCAR Cup Series history.
It was June 19, 1949, and the 1-year-old sanctioning body was holding the first Strictly Stock event, the series that became what we now know as Cup, on a three-quarter-mile dirt track located just across the road from the current location of the massive international airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dunnaway, of nearby Gastonia, won the event by a full three laps, but inspectors ruled that his 1947 Ford was running illegally spaced rear springs, also known as “moonshiner springs,” that violated the rules of being a straight-off-the-street stock car.
Dunnaway and car owner Hubert Westmoreland — who had indeed made a moonshine run in that very car the night before — were stripped of the victory, and it was given to Jim Roper, whose name remains etched in the NASCAR history books as its first Cup Series winner. For the entire story, including the lawsuit that followed, read this piece from 2019, the 70th anniversary of the race.
5. Chad Knaus
The oldest saying in NASCAR goes: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t winning.” The NASCAR Hall of Fame is packed with racers who lived by that mantra, including the crew chief who was elected to the Hall earlier this month.
Knaus, who won 81 races and seven championships atop Jimmie Johnson’s pit box was (and still is) notorious for outworking and outsmarting his competition on the track and the tech inspectors in the garage. There is a fine line between innovation and rule breaking, and Knaus straddled that gray area like a Flying Wallenda tightroping across the Grand Canyon.
Still, he was suspended four times for four very different rules violations (he won back one of those via appeal) and was hit with a pair of $100,000 fines. In typical Knaus fashion, his team responded to the most infamous of those violations — busted for making an illegal adjustment to the rear window during 2006 Daytona 500 qualifying — by winning that 500 as well as two of the first three races while he was sitting back at the Hendrick Motorsports shop.
4. Ray Evernham
In case you were wondering from whom Knaus learned his playbook … well, here you go. Evernham rewrote more pages of the NASCAR rulebook than the people who actually wrote it.
No joke, when he became the crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports wunderkind Jeff Gordon in 1992, that rulebook wasn’t thicker than a pamphlet with a staple holding it together. A decade and a half later, when he finished his tenure as a team owner, that book was thick and bound like it was ready for a shelf at Barnes & Noble.
As the No. 24 Chevy piled up wins and championships, Evernham and Gordon were so dominant that their competition started frequently violating the unwritten don’t-air-dirty-laundry-in-public code and accused Evernham of cheating with everything from suspension parts to “exotic metals” to Jack Roush’s epic 1998 tirade on tire soaking, aka “Tiregate.”
Evernham’s Mona Lisa was the “T-Rex” Chevy specifically constructed to push the limits of the rulebook gray areas that was rolled out for the 1997 NASCAR All-Star Race. Gordon crushed the field. Afterward, NASCAR was so befuddled by the somehow technically legal car that it told Evernham to never bring it back to the racetrack again.
3. Michael Waltrip Racing
First off, there was never a collection of dudes working in a single race shop this century that you would have rather had beers with. Secondly, MWR won seven races and 14 poles during roughly 14 seasons in Cup, during which they also acted as Toyota’s first flagship program.
Unfortunately, that tenure started with a bizarre controversy during 2007 Daytona 500 qualifying when the MWR cars were caught with an illegal additive hidden in the fuel lines. The “rocket juice” was so blatant you could smell it as the Camrys rolled by in the garage after their qualifying runs. Later that year, Roush (I sense a theme here) accused MWR of stealing sway bars from his garage.
Then MWR was effectively ended at Richmond in 2013, when Clint Bowyer spun his car on purpose and Brian Vickers was told to pit, all to manipulate the outcome of the regular-season finale and help teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase postseason field. The fallout was the most embarrassing in-race incident in NASCAR history and resulted in a record $300,000 fine, the removal of Truex from the Chase and an exit stage left by sponsor NAPA. Less than two years later, MWR was out of business.
2. Gary Nelson
Speaking of the Waltrips, here’s a guy who was calling the shots for Darrell Waltrip’s first big Cup wins at DiGard Racing and won Daytona 500s with Geoff Bodine and Bobby Allison, as well as the 1983 title with Allison.
He also became known for his not-so-legal innovations. Those included the move called “bombs away,” when Nelson would fill the car’s roll cage with ball bearings and buckshot so his cars would make minimum weight during inspection, but during the race he would signal his driver to pull a hidden lever, opening a trapdoor and dumping the 300 pounds of metal balls into the infield grass. Recalled Nelson’s last team boss, Felix Sabates: “I would see people after a race at Martinsville walking through the grass and tripping over those little balls, thinking, ‘Where the hell did those come from?!'”
How great was Nelson at bending rules? When legendary NASCAR technical director Dick Beaty retired in 1993, he hired Nelson as his replacement because “Gary was the guy who drove me nuts, but he also knows how everyone else drove me nuts, too.”
1. Smokey Yunick
Y’all can debate all day and night about whether we get some of the No. 1s on these NASCAR 75 lists correct, but not this one. Henry “Smokey” Yunick is the greatest mechanic who ever built a race car, and his cars treated rulebooks like they were merely a list of suggestions.
Yunick once brought a Chevelle to the racetrack that was built to seven-eighths scale to slip through the air faster. He filled roll cages with extra fuel. He inflated a basketball in an oversized fuel tank to make it seem legal when tested, then deflated it to make room for more gas during the race.
Angry officials once pulled one of his cars apart, including yanking the fuel cell out of the car completely and setting it on the ground, and handed him a list of nine items he needed to fix before he could race. He handed the list back, saying, “That should be 10 things,” and was somehow still able to crank it up and drive away. When those same officials later cornered him, demanding to know how he was able to cheat on fuel, he famously replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Yunick also holds 11 patents, including an early version of the SAFER barrier, and won 57 NASCAR races and two Cup Series championships as a crew chief and/or owner, plus the 1960 Indy 500. And yet, how much does Smokey’s name still rankle the feathers of NASCAR officials? He has been elected to nearly two dozen motorsports halls of fame but has yet to even be nominated for the NASCAR Hall.