#85 - The Southern 500 ~ The Granddaddy of Them All - Part 6 of 6
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
Yet again, bad weather and impending darkness played a major role in the outcome of the 1986 Southern 500. The race started and ended under threatening skies that had all the drivers charging hard most of the day, thinking the race could end at any moment. Of course, Richard Petty got home well before dark. On lap six, Dale Earnhardt sent the King spinning and ended his race. The normally amiable Petty was clearly annoyed when he told reporters who asked about Earnhardt's move, "his mind goes out of gear when he flips the switch to turn on the motor." Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond and Geoff Bodine seemed to have the dominant cars. Bodine and his Hendrick racing crew decided to gamble on track position by skipping a caution flag pit stop late in the going, thinking the race was about to end due to rain. The strategy backfired and shortly after the green flag dropped, Bodine was forced to the pits for fuel. That seemed to hand the race to defending Southern 500 champion, Bill Elliott, but with six laps to go Elliott's Ford broke loose and he slid into the wall. That allowed Tim Richmond and Bobby Allison to pass Bill. Richmond won the race, Allison was second and Elliott recovered from his encounter with the wall well enough to take third. Tragically, as we now know, it was the last Southern 500 Tim Richmond would ever compete in. Days before the 1987 event, Tim would announce he was retiring again due to health reasons.
An elder statesman of the sport came very close to taking the 1987 Southern 500 to the great delight of the crowd on hand. Once again there was rain in the Darlington area, and drivers were forced to drive flat out not knowing when the race would end. The skies were black and threatening on lap 189 when Richard Petty ducked under Dale Earnhardt to take the lead to the wild cheering of the crowd. Perhaps there was some degree of vengeance in the move, as Dale had spun the King the year before at that same race. Two laps later Earnhardt retook the point, and Rusty Wallace was able to get by Richard as well. Before the King had a chance to reassert himself the rains began falling and the race ended under caution six laps later. At 202 laps, the 1987 event remains the shortest Southern 500 ever run.
The 1988 Labor Day weekend classic at Darlington came down to a three way battle between the leaders in the Winston Cup points hunt. Sadly, Bobby Allison, four time winner of the event, was not on hand after having suffered career ending injuries at Pocono earlier that season. There was also a tire war going on that year, and late in the event there was a pronounced shortage of tires in the pits that had the crews doing a lot of horse trading with other teams who were already out of the event, for fresh rubber. Sterling Marlin's crew could not negotiate a fresh set of tires and Sterling, who had been in contention for the win, was forced to finish the race on badly worn tires. Bill Elliott overcame some adversity of his own, an extra pit stop to tighten a loose lug nut, to charge back to the front. On lap 330, Elliott took the lead from Rusty Wallace and held off Rusty's every attempt to get back by him to take the win. Dale Earnhardt came in third, and the top three finishers were the top three in points in the exact same order. Elliott had not forgotten he had also had the points lead after his previous Southern 500 win in 1985, only to lose it down the stretch, but if he had, there were reporters on hand eager to remind him. Bill assured them both the team and the driver had matured since 1985, and that they were ready to complete what they had started. In fact, the final 1988 points standings mirrored that Southern 500 finish as well; Elliott first, Wallace a close second, and Earnhardt just behind them in third.
The 1989 Southern 500 was a case of good news/bad news for Darrell Waltrip. Having finally won the Daytona 500 and the World 600 as well, DW only needed to win that one more race to collect the Winston Million. The bad news of course was he had never been able to win that race. Waltrip qualified decently in ninth position but from the drop of the green he moved the wrong way, backwards through the pack. The frustration and desperation finally got to DW and he put himself into the wall twice, once again, ending his hopes for the big payday. "I love Darlington in the spring, I love Darlington in the fall, I love Darlington in Winner's Circle, but I hate Darlington in the wall." quipped Waltrip, ever the jokester. Unfortunately, no one saw fit to buy rights his clever little ditty for say, oh, a million dollars. Dale Earnhardt had vowed to win that race to dedicate it to the memory of his late father and fellow racing champion Ralph Earnhardt, who was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame the night before the race. The rest of the drivers may as well have stayed home that day as a result. Earnhardt took on all the best all comers could throw at him, led 153 laps and beat Mark Martin by 1.5 seconds for the win.
The 1990 Southern 500 was fraught with controversy and some frayed tempers as well. Kenny Schrader had endured a season of frustration in what had seemed like it could be a promising year, when he took over driving chores from Tim Richmond at Hendrick Motorsports. After a poor qualifying effort, the team was able to sort the car out in practice and Kenny was making a determined drive for the front. The bid ended when he made contact with Morgan Shepherd, and hit the wall. The damage forced him to the garage area for repairs. No sooner had Schrader returned to the track, some fifty laps down, than he hunted down Shepherd, took a hard right and drove him into the wall. The resultant damage to his car put an end to Schrader's day before NASCAR had a chance to. Bud Moore, Shepherd's car owner, mused to the press that perhaps the best thing to do was to go find Kenny and "Work that boy's head over with a hammer." Mark Martin, the points leader, endured a difficult day and two spins. Dale Earnhardt, second in points, was looking to capitalize on Mark's problems and make up some ground. He had a strong car but his day was not without incident. As a hard charging Kyle Petty tried to take the lead from him, Dale got into the back of Michael Waltrip's car trying to put him a lap down. Waltrip spun out and collected Kyle's car as he came across the track. Michael was not a happy camper after the race. Presumably Kyle wasn't whistling "Zippidy-Doo-Dah" either. Late in the race Earnhardt experienced vibration and handling problems that he later described as making his car feel like it was “dragging a cow around" or "had a tree hung up under it." Detailed analysis of the films reveal neither was the case. Richard Childress talked his driver calmly around the track even while Ernie Irvan closed in. When they finally reached their pit window Dale came in for fresh rubber (and a cow inspection?) handing the lead to Irvan. Ernie and his crew gambled there would be a yellow flag (Cow in the middle of the race track?) and stayed out too long on worn rubber. Earnhardt was able to make up time on the fresher rubber and forge an insurmountable lead on his opponent. Alan Kulwicki recovered from an early spin to finish third and Bill Elliott was fourth. Coupled with his victory at the Winston 500, the Southern 500 win allowed Dale to collect a $100,000 bonus for winning two of the four races in the Winston Million challenge. He very well could have had that million dollars had it not been for the infamous last lap flat tire at that year's Daytona 500 that had cost Dale the win. While he might have had a legitimate "beef" with his bad luck at Daytona the fact the win allowed him to close within 26 points of Mark Martin in the championship hunt had Earnhardt in a fine "MOOOOOOOOOOd".
There was still more controversy at the 1991 Southern 500 and Dale Earnhardt found himself right in the middle of it again. That year Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd were battling for the points title. Rudd was pursuing Earnhardt when Dale got into the back of Morgan Shepherd (who could be excused for not caring much for the Southern 500 afterwards) and spun him out into Rudd's path. While Ricky was able to continue, the toe-in on his car was knocked out and he was not able to contend for the win again. Clearly annoyed, Rudd hinted he thought the contact might not have been accidental, saying that it was "kind of convenient-for Dale's situation anyway." Meanwhile back up front, Davey Allison had the dominant car and seemed poised to add his name to the Southern 500 record book alongside his dad's. All at once the car seemed to lose power and it took a couple pit stops for the Yates team to diagnose the problem as a piece of the cowl assembly having broken free and getting jammed up in the throttle linkage. Harry Gant was able to take advantage of Davey's misfortunes to go into the lead. Earnhardt mounted a strong charge, but fell off the pace after breaking an axle. Gant cruised on to win by just under 11 seconds ahead of Ernie Irvan. In doing so he too took home the $100,000 bonus, having won the Winston 500 as well. It was also the start of a four race winning streak for the popular 51 year old driver which would earn him the nickname, "Mr. September."
Davey Allison had a lot of things on his mind going into the Southern 500 of 1992, not the least of which was the fact having already won the Daytona 500 and at the Winston 500 he had a chance to cop the Winston Million. Besides that he was also in a tight points chase with Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki for the Winston Cup championship, despite a season that had seen Davey hospitalized four times after violent wrecks at Bristol, Martinsville, Charlotte and Pocono. Tragically, the fact he had just buried his brother Clifford less than a month earlier still had to be on Allison's mind as well. And then of course there was the weather. The forecast called for showers that afternoon and no one knew if they would be able to get the entire race in. They did not. During the race, Allison's biggest problem looked to be Mark Martin. A poor qualifying run had landed Mark a back straight pit stall, but he had enough car to make up the ground he lost on every pit stop on longer runs. Allison's Ford was running strong as well, and he did in fact lead 92 laps. With Bill Elliott's problems that day, he seemed poised to make up some ground in the points standings as well. Martin pitted on lap 289 and Allison dove into his front stretch pit stall not wanting to give up valuable track position running on worn tires, and costing himself a shot at the win and the million dollar reward. While he was still working his way back up to the front the rain began falling. At that point the only car on the track ahead of him that had already made a stop was Mark Martin. Darrell Waltrip was leading but would need to stop soon, as would Brett Bodine and Bill Elliott. With one more stop needed to go the distance, Davey could count on his advantage of the front stretch pit stall to overhaul Mark as well. If the rain stopped and the race resume that was. It did not. With all that was on the line that day, NASCAR put off the decision to declare the race over as long as possible, hoping to get at least a small window of clearing weather to allow the race to resume. Meanwhile, the network caught up with DW and Davey standing together watching the skies. Despite the frustration of the situation that would have had most men heading off to sulk somewhere by himself, Davey managed to smile and joke around with DW, with Davey saying it looked like the weather was clearing, and Darrell saying the weather looked so bad NASCAR ought to call the race immediately and let everyone get home to safety. Later, when asked how much gas there was left in his car DW just winked and said, "Oh, about a million bucks worth." The race never restarted and Allison not only lost his chance at the million but valuable points to Bill Elliott in the title chase as well. Despite the heartbreak, he was able to flash his normal, "Aw shucks" smile and vowed "we'll get it next year." Of course, sadly, there was no next Southern 500 for Davey Allison. While it wasn't the way he wanted to win the race, Darrell Waltrip said after all those years of trying he'd take a Southern 500 win anyway he could get it. With a win at the oldest race on the circuit so hard to come by, who could blame him?
1993: Mark Martin added his name to the Southern 500 record book, winning his fourth straight race that year.
1994: Bill Elliott won his third Southern 500, and, to date, the last race of his career.
1995-96-97 Jeff Gordon became the only man to win three consecutive Southern 500s. The 1997 win was the biggest as it allowed Jeff to become the second, and with the new No Bull 5" presumably last, driver to win the Winston Million.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.