When NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series races at Michigan International Speedway, almost in the backyards of the American auto makers, any race team worth its salt tries to steer the bragging rights to their own manufacturer. And over the years, it’s been the folks at Ford Motor Company who have been in position to do the most bragging.
Ford has a league-leading 31 wins at Michigan, plus another 12 by Mercury. The Wood Brothers and Jack Roush have won 11 Cup races apiece for Ford at Michigan, and their win totals at Michigan surpass any other owner. Bill Elliott, who will drive the No. 21 FordParts.com Fusion this weekend, leads all active drivers with seven Michigan wins, and they all came in Fords.
The Woods pounced on Michigan from the very first Cup race there, on June 15, 1969. Cale Yarborough was driving the Wood Brothers’ Mercury at that time, and he beat Lee Roy Yarbrough in a thrilling last-lap shootout between the two Mercury drivers. Yarbrough actually got into the wall and finished fourth, while David Pearson, in a Ford, wound up the runner-up. Veteran motorsports journalist Benny Phillips described that race as one of the most exciting ever. “If they gave an Oscar for stock car racing’s most thrilling event, then the Motor State 500 would take the lead by leaps and bounds,” he wrote at the time.
But for Leonard Wood, who prepared the winning Mercury that day, there were plenty of other Michigan races that would deserve Oscar nominations. “We won some others that were better than that first one,” he said. The Woods won the next year too, with Yarborough prevailing over Pete Hamilton in the closing laps. “I remember Cale saying he heard Pete’s motor rev up when his car broke loose,” Wood said.
Then David Pearson took over the No. 21 and won seven of nine starts from 1972 to 1976. He added another Michigan win in 1978 and never finished worse that fifth at Michigan in the No. 21.
And then there was Dale Jarrett’s first career Cup win in the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400, when he beat Davey Allison in another Ford by a mere 10 inches. “We hadn’t run that good all day and then we put on a set of tires and it ran really good,” Wood said. “So we left them on there. Davey Allison was running extremely well, but he made a pit stop and was behind us.
“Davey was passing everybody real quick, and he got up to Dale and was going to try to pass him, but he overdrove the corner and slid out.” Wood said he felt good about the side-by-side battle when he saw Jarrett holding his position on the lower side of the race track. “Dale pulled down on the inside on the backstretch which was telling you that the handling on the car and the driver both were doing good,” Wood said. “They came off the corner side-by-side and Dale beat him by a foot.”
Wood said he and his crew discovered early on at Michigan that the two-mile track required a careful approach into the turns. “We found out the first time we went up there that you can drive off too far into the corner and kill the speed coming off,” he said. “You can drive it in there wide open, but you need to back off and let it take a set and then get set to come off. That was the key to getting down the straightaways fast.”
Wood also had some big ones that got away at Michigan, including one when Kyle Petty was the driver. Petty was OK with the set-up during practice, but not completely happy, so Wood kept working with the left-rear spring. “I hit the right combination on that thing, and he came from the back to second place, and was going to win the thing and dropped a valve,” Wood said. But overall, Leonard Wood has few Michigan stories that don’t have a happy ending. “Michigan has been good to us,” he said.
Sunday’s Heluva Good Sour Cream Dip 400 is set to get the green flag at 1 p.m. with TV coverage on TNT.