One Hit Wonder: Johnny Rutherford

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Johnny Rutherford won the Indianapolis 500 three times, but he also has one NASCAR Cup Series victory on his lengthy resume. (IndyCar Photo)

One hundred ninety-three drivers have won races in the NASCAR Cup Series. Of those drivers, 61 won only one race.

We’re diving into the National Speed Sport News archives to look back at some of these one-hit wonders and the races they won.

Best known as a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, most forget that Johnny Rutherford is also a NASCAR Cup Series race winner.

However, his lone checkered flag at NASCAR’s top level came a full decade before his first victory in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in 1974 and it came at one of NASCAR’s greatest speedways — Daytona Int’l Speedway.

The year was 1963 and Rutherford was a 24-year-old upstart still trying to make a name for himself. He landed an opportunity to drive a car prepared by legendary mechanic and car owner Smokey Yunick during the Daytona 500, but first he had to qualify for the race through one of the two qualifying races.

At the time the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 were points-paying races in the NASCAR Cup Series, a stark contrast from the modern era where the races simply set the field for the Daytona 500.

On Feb. 22, 1963, Rutherford started ninth in Yunick’s No. 13 Chevrolet and spent most of the race chasing 1960 NASCAR Cup Series champion Rex White. However, on the 33rd lap Rutherford took the lead from White for the first time.

Johnny Rutherford beside the No. 13 entry fielded by Smokey Yunick. (NASCAR Photo)
Johnny Rutherford beside the No. 13 entry fielded by Smokey Yunick. (NASCAR Photo)

The pair traded the lead a few more times, with White moving back out front on the 34th lap before giving way again to Rutherford on the 36th lap. White stayed close over the final four laps of the 40-lap event, but came up three car lengths short at the checkered flag according to the Feb. 27, 1963 issue of National Speed Sport News.

Thus, Rutherford won his first NASCAR Cup Series start. Rutherford raced well in the Daytona 500 a few days later, piloting Yunick’s No. 13 to a ninth-place finish, four laps behind race winner Tiny Lund.

Following his Daytona performances, Rutherford focused most of his racing efforts on the USAC National Championship trail. It proved a successful endeavor for the venerable Texan as he became beloved at Indianapolis Motor Speedway thanks to his three Indianapolis 500 wins. He also claimed the 1965 USAC National Sprint Car championship and the 1980 PPG IndyCar World Series championship.

Despite spending most of his career racing Indy cars, Rutherford made an additional 34 NASCAR Cup Series starts driving for the likes of A.J. Foyt, Bud Moore, Junie Donlavey and DiGard Motorsports. He never again graced victory lane in NASCAR competition, earning a best finish of fifth at Daytona during the 1981 Firecracker 400 while driving for Ron Benfield.