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End of the Road

2/24/2009
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The announcement came in the form of one simple sentence last week, buried in the middle paragraphs of yet another robotic recession-produced press release.

Pontiac is gone.

Shuttered, parked, up on blocks, tossed onto the same scrap heap with the Edsel, Studebaker and American Motors.

Shouldn't we be making a bigger deal out of this? This is the death of the nameplate that brought us the GTO, Firebird, Grand Prix, and the G8, the automaker who once powered the careers of Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and Richard Petty for heaven's sake…the list goes on and on.

Sure, the writing had been on the wall for quite some time. Pontiac's once rich tradition as the high-performance division of General Motors had degenerated into more of a go-between role for consumers searching for something that had more personality than a Chevy but without the old man stigma of a Buick.

In the end, the brand that once touted it's mission as "we build excitement" has become yet another withering victim of bad business practices, forced to stand along the same executioner's wall as Circuit City and Linens n' Things.

Doesn't a car that inspired songs by Jan & Dean, John Lee Hooker, and Lyle Lovett deserve better?

Earlier this year, before I knew that it had been slapped with a death sentence, I had a Pontiac G8 rental car in Daytona. It made me think about my second and third cars, both Pontiac Grand Ams. I drove it on the beach and thought about 1950, when Will Albright of Graham, NC steered the brand to its NASCAR debut in the still-new sanctioning body's ninth race ever. He quietly finished 19th out of 41 cars on the 4.17-mile beach and road course in a big ol' 1946 Pontiac Streamliner. It was his one and only big league start.

Seven years later Pontiac came back to the beach and earned its first win, driven by Spartanburg, South Carolina's Cotton Owens. Five months later on a 1.5-mile dirt track on the border of Tennessee and Arkansas, Marvin Panch gave the carmaker win number two.

In '61 and '62 the brand earned back-to-back manufacturer championships thanks to a mind-blowing 52 wins over two seasons. The year before Pontiac's greatest contribution to racing history came not in the form of a win, but rather an assist.

"Those damn Pontiacs were so fast it wasn't hardly worth trying to run against them," Junior Johnson recalled to me last week after I'd asked him about the 1960 Daytona 500, the second edition of the Great American Race. "I was in a Chevrolet and trying to keep up with them was a just a joke. Fireball and Jack (Smith) just killed us in practice and qualifying and in the qualifying races. So one day during practice I decided to follow them and see if I could keep up…and damn if I didn't stay right there with them the whole time. I'd discovered drafting and didn't even know it. Well on race day I drafted behind those Pontiacs all day in my little ol' Chevy and stayed up front until the end."

With ten laps to go Bobby Johns was leading in his Pontiac when the rear windshield blew out and sent him spinning. Johnson eased by and won the race.

"Thirty years later one of the Pontiac people said I should give them my Daytona 500 trophy for winning that race for me. I told him I thought I might keep it."

Besides, Fireball Roberts handed Pontiac its very own win in the 500 two years later.

In the second half of the 1960's, Pontiac led the Muscle Car charge with the GTO and turned in its NASCAR license for drag racing (where it has won ten manufactuers cups and kick-started the career of, among others, John Force). Slowly but surely, the brand eased its way back into NASC AR, earning a win at Martinsville in '81, its first Cup victory since '63.

For the next 23 years it served as a nice little burr under the saddle of juggernauts Ford and Chevy, managing to steal a handful of wins each season. The final five of Richard Petty's 200 career wins came courtesy of Pontiac, not Plymouth or Dodge.

As The King faded, Rusty Wallace became the face of the franchise, finishing second to Ford's Bill Elliott in the 1988 championship hunt and then winning the '89 title. Most folks remember the greatest rivalry of the early 1990's — Rusty vs. Dale Earnhardt— as a Ford vs. Chevy clash, but it was not.

"That black Grand Prix was a bad fast hot rod," Wallace recalls. "It had that sloped nose with that black and gold paint scheme. It looked fast just sitting there."

When Bobby Labonte won the 2000 Cup for Joe Gibbs Racing, it behind the wheel of a Pontiac "Wide Track" Grand Prix, as was Tony Stewart's '99 Rookie of the Year season and his first Cup title three years later.

The following year, General Motors announced that Pontiac would be leaving NASCAR at season's end, choosing to focus their oval racing efforts on their flagship Chevy brand (and also because NASCAR was demanding too much cash for the brand to continue as the league's pace car supplier). With rumors already swirling about the label's demise, the grand old face of high performance street cars squeezed out its final NASCAR victory. It was nothing less than perhaps the greatest finish of all time.

"The last two laps of the 2003 spring race at Darlington were the kind of thing you only see in movies," recalls then-24-year old phenom Kurt Busch, who was piloting a Ford Taurus for Roush Racing and in the lead on the race's final lap. "Sometimes a finish is just destiny. That's what that day was."

Busch's Ford was beating and banging with the bright orange Tide-sponsored Pontiac of Ricky Craven, a 36-year old veteran looking to cap a comeback from a series of concussions that had derailed a Kurt Busch-like career of young promise.

The two cars roared fender-to-fender off the final turn and crossed the finish line smoking and sideways. The nose of Craven's car, the nose that bore the Pontiac insignia, crossed the finish line .002 seconds ahead of Busch's Ford.

It was Pontiac's 154th and, as we now know officially, final win. Good for fifth all-time behind Ford, Chevy, fellow dead label Plymouth, and perhaps soon to be deceased Dodge.

"It is hard to think that our win that day will be the last ever for Pontiac," Craven says now. "There are brand names in America that you just assume will always be around. I hoped one day it would make it back to the racetrack. Shouldn't we be making a bigger deal out of this?"

That's what we said.