50 Years of nascar racing ~ High Stakes On The High Banks (Post 88)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Imagine the uneasy feeling a driver locked in a tight battle must feel churning in the pit of his stomach when it comes time to run the Fall event at Dover. On the high banks of the monster mile, things can go from a dream to a nightmare in the blink of an eye and they often do. A driver can be cruising along running up front one moment, only to find himself in the middle of a wreck of someone else's making in the next. With only a handful of races left on the schedule, there's not a lot of time to make up ground in the points. For the fans, it may be an exciting race. For some race car drivers they 'd just as soon take a weekend off. And sometimes they do wind up getting to go home early.
The 1970 Fall Dover race was the end of the era. Richard Petty won; no great surprise, in that it was his fifth win in 11 events in a season that saw him win 18 races, and of course, he went right on winning after that. Nor was it any surprise he flat out dominated the race, leading all but the first 16 laps. The King would go on dominating events, and would win some by more than the two-lap advantage he had that day. But that year's Mason-Dixon 300 marked the last victory for a Plymouth Superbird, Chrysler's purpose built race car with the outrageous wing, in Grand National racing. NASCAR's new rules in 1971 would effectively ban the Superbird after it won 9 races in its only year on the circuit. As a side-note, Petty also took the last dirt track win at the next race on the schedule, which meant two proud traditions ended that September.
Cale Yarborough won the Fall race in Dover in 1976, but he did it the hard way. He had to overcome a one-lap penalty for running over the jack on a pit stop, then make up two laps after experiencing ignition trouble. The two cars he was trying to run down were no slouches either, with both Richard Petty and David Pearson having won numerous times at that track. Cale could have been forgiven if he decided after all that misfortune a third place finish would be just fine, but he pushed his Junior Johnson Chevy to its outer limits and began making up several seconds a lap, though he was flirting with disaster running that hard. With twenty laps to go, he swept by Richard Petty into the lead and fought like a madman to hang onto the first place position he had worked so hard to achieve. In the end, he finished 7.2 seconds in front of Petty. With Richard being Cale's main competition in the points chase that year, Yarborough put everyone on notice that he meant to dethrone the two-time consecutive reigning champion. In fact, Cale would go on to claim the championship not only that year, but for the next two after that as well.
Going into the Fall race at Dover in 1979, Darrell Waltrip was trying to cling to a once seemingly insurmountable points lead, against a resurgent Richard Petty. The race did not go as planned and a blown out right front tire put Darrell hard into the unforgiving concrete wall. While the DiGard team did get Darrell back out onto the track eventually, he finished 29th, 193 laps off the pace. DW was not the only driver having a tough time of it. Pole sitter Dale Earnhardt spun out twice during the race. Dover is a notoriously physically demanding track, and Dale was still recovering from painful injuries suffered at Pocono that July, so he eventually turned over the reins of his Chevy to another rookie, Bill Elliott. The race became a three way battle between Richard Petty, driving like the King of old, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. Yarborough tried staying out on worn tires rather than pitting under green, to maintain track position, and Petty was able to run him down and duck underneath Cale with 17 laps to go. Yarborough faded to third, while Donnie Allison mounted a desperate last laps charge to try to overtake Petty, but fell short by a four feet at the checkers. It was the beginning of the end for Waltrip, who would lose that year's title to Petty in a heartbreaker.
Waltrip found himself in a very different position going into the Fall Dover event in 1982. He was playing the hound to Bobby Allison's rabbit in the title hunt. (Fate seemed to have locked the two nemeses together. From 1978 to 1984 both drivers always finished within one position in the points of each other, and from 1981-83 they were one-two in the points.) Misfortune struck Bobby Allison, who is perhaps the unluckiest man ever to live, and a blown head gasket relegated him to limping around the track to a tenth place finish, 13 laps off the pace. Meanwhile up front, Darrell was running in the lead with a surprisingly strong Kyle Petty engaging him in a spirited battle. Waltrip managed to take the checkers two car lengths ahead of Kyle, and in doing so knocked 46 points off Allison's advantage in the title hunt. DW took that title at the end of 1982.
The drivers had even more reason to feel uneasy going into the Fall Dover race of 1988. As if driving the Monster Mile wasn't already tough enough, the yearlong tire war between Goodyear and Hoosier was at its height. Both manufacturers were looking to give their drivers the fastest possible tires, and in that effort to make the tires faster, safety was sometimes compromised. Such was the case at Dover that year. Tire problems were rampant and in fact felled the fastest two qualifiers, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki. Both hit the wall hard and were eliminated. Ken Schrader and Dale Jarrett both hit the wall as a result of tire failures as well. Even points leader Bill Elliott, who dominated the race, had a tire blow out on him, but he was fortunate enough to have the tire pop while the field was under caution and narrowly avoided hitting pit wall. Elliott went on to take the win, with Dale Earnhardt, who was second in the points, second in the race, and likewise, Rusty Wallace who was third in the points finishing third. A driver can't get into the top three in points without a fair amount of luck and all three drivers proved it that day. For Elliott, it must have been a relief just to survive the race and take his championship challenge to the next race track.
Bill Elliott was back with a fast car at Dover in the Fall of 1990, but after a long winless streak stretching back almost two years, he was not in that year's title hunt. Dale Earnhardt was battling with Mark Martin for the 1990 Winston Cup championship, and he and Bill treated the fans to some of the finest racing ever at the track, running lap after lap side by side and swapping the lead (as well as a little paint) time after time. Mark Martin had almost gone a lap down at one point, but a timely caution flag, coupled with adjustments in the pits by the Roush crew, allowed him to get up front and join in the battle. Elliott, Martin and Earnhardt were on a lap by themselves, and gave the crowd a good show. Within 10 laps from the end, Martin and Earnhardt made hard contact and both got out of shape but were able to save their errant race cars. Elliott took advantage of their prolonged battle and the incident to sneak off by himself and take the win by under a second and a half, over Martin who emerged victorious in his scramble with third place Earnhardt. As proof it takes a good deal of luck to win at Dover, there was less than three tenths of a gallon of fuel left in Elliott's tank when he reached victory lane, and a rear tire went flat as he pulled in there to receive his accolades.
Certainly the most notorious of all the battles between points leaders at the Fall race in Dover occurred in 1993. Rusty Wallace was making a spirited attempt to catch Dale Earnhardt in that year's points battle and he managed to take the pole and dominate the race early. A blown tire, possibly caused by his team under-inflating their slicks in an attempt to increase traction, sent Wallace limping to the pits and dropped him two laps off the pace. Teammates Ken Schrader and Jeff Gordon assumed command of the event while Rusty tried to make up lost ground. Earnhardt was running in the front pack and prepared to deal Rusty a serious setback in his attempts to win the title. Gordon, who had had a tough few weeks prior to that event may have been a little too racy that day, and when Geoff Bodine, making his first start as an owner driver, tried to make up a lap utilizing fresh tires, Gordon got into his quarter panel and sent Bodine into the wall. That was nothing compared to the mayhem that was about to take place. Wallace had made up one lap on the track, and was starting on the inside line, just behind Hut Stricklin, and attempting to get around the leaders then hope for a quick caution flag to get him back in the hunt. There was a quick caution flag all right and Rusty had a front row seat for the wreck. As the green flag dropped Wallace accelerated hard and ran into the back of Stricklin. Stricklin got sideways and went up the track into the lead pack of cars. Teammates Ricky Rudd and Jeff Gordon were both involved in the wreck. More important, so was points leader Dale Earnhardt, who was forced to the garage area for repairs that dropped him 100 laps off the pace. The caution flag the next time by allowed Wallace back onto the lead lap and he wound up running in tight quarters with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, and Kenny Schrader for the win. NASCAR took the unusual step of throwing a competition yellow with 25 laps left to go to allow teams to inspect their tire wear because of all the problems that had been caused by under-inflated tires popping. Shortly after the restart, Wallace was able to power by DW and went on to take the win, though there were a lot of angry people waiting to have a word with him after the race. The victory allowed him to slice 97 points off Earnhardt's point lead, but at the end of the year Dale took the championship by 80 points.
While you can't pick a winner at Dover in the Fall, you can bet that the drivers leading the points will breathe a huge sigh of relief if they escape the Monster unscathed.
At present, Matt is not taking email correspondence at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments, please leave them below and he will read them at his leisure.