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Joe Lee Johnson first started a race in NASCAR’s top division on Daytona Beach in 1957 and earned $25 in prize money after his Dodge retired. Fifth at Atlanta a year later with S.T.Campbell’s Chevrolet, Johnson entered his own car in 1959 and scored his breakthrough victory with a two-year-old Honest Charley Speed Shop-sponsored Chevrolet Bel Air. That win came in a 150-mile race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville when Johnson finished three laps ahead of the field.
Having finished third on Columbia Speedway’s dirt oval at the start of the 1960 season (the race actually held in the previous November), Johnson was convinced he had won at Weaverville but his protest was denied and his E.C.Wilson Chevy was classified second instead.
Inaugural winner of the World 600
He switched to Paul McDuffie’s Chevrolet Impala for that year’s inaugural World 600 at Charlotte. The new race was the longest event organised by NASCAR thus far and Johnson qualified in 20th position. He dropped as far as five laps off the pace as the track broke up alarmingly. An errant stone thrown up from the track surface holed the radiator of leader Jack Smith with 48 laps to go. Johnson took the lead and cruised home to victory – winning $27,150 in the process.
It was the finest day in his career and he retired two years later after 55 NASCAR starts and two victories. Johnson ran the local speedway in his hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee but eventually succumbed to cancer in a Chattanooga hospital when aged 75 years old.