Editor’s Note: The following is part eight of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss the first seven editions? Don’t worry… we have the links for you here. Enjoy!
For Dale Earnhardt fans, the 1986 Daytona 500 is one of the “big ones that got away.” Earnhardt had a strong week, but the bad luck at Daytona he shared with Darrell Waltrip and Buddy Baker reared its ugly head again. After the way he had dominated the ’85 Daytona 500, Bill Elliott was a heavy favorite that year. He didn’t disappoint anyone on pole day either, claiming the pole for the race at over 205 mph for the second year in a row. “Hoo-Ray” hollered the Elliott fans. Bill clearly had a strong car in the first 125-mile qualifier, but laid back early in the going, confident in his car’s ability. Elliott stole a page from Cale Yarborough‘s playbook and patiently waited for the last lap to slingshot by Bobby Allison. “Hoo-Ray” shouted the Elliott fans again. Terry Labonte, Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin rounded out the top five.
Bobby’s boy, Davey Allison, had less luck than the old man. He spun the entry he was driving out of the Sadler Racing stables and once again failed to make the field for the 500. Richard Petty had returned to the Petty Enterprises stable and his sixth-place finish in that first qualifier gave the King’s legions of fans hope that the magic was back. In the second qualifier, Earnhardt just out-muscled the field, leaving Geoff Bodine in his wake to take the win in convincing style. It looked like there was going to be an epic battle between Earnhardt and Elliott. Earnhardt was confident going into the event. He had won the Busch Clash, a 125 qualifier and the Sportsman race on the Saturday before the 500. The man was definitely on a roll.
Right from the get go, it was obvious Bill was not going to run away and hide from the field again. He gave up the lead to Bodine on lap 3, and seemed to be employing the same “save the car for the end” strategy that had won him the 125. Earnhardt took the lead on lap 11 and he and Bodine swapped it back and forth for most of the race. It was not a good day for the veterans. Bobby Allison finished dead last after losing an engine on the 21st lap. Petty slammed the wall on lap 63 and broke his shoulder, disappointing his fans who thought the King was back. Neil Bonnett broke a wheel and lost control, setting off a thundering wreck. Joe Ruttman went into the wall hard. Baker, Yarborough and Harry Gant all wrecked trying to get through the mess. Elliott’s car was damaged as well. He lost several laps in the pits while repairs were made, and never contended for the lead again. “Boo” hollered the Elliott fans. The caution flag flew for 46 laps in that wreck-marred event. That left it to Bodine and Earnhardt to decide things.
Earnhardt seemed to be content late in the event to cruise in Geoff’s wake to help put a little distance between the two of them and the field, while setting Bodine up for one of “them Cale Yarborough deals,” a last-lap slingshot pass. In light of the qualifier results, it seemed evident Earnhardt had the horsepower to do the job. What he didn’t have was the gas. A pit miscalculation caused Earnhardt to run out of gas with three to go and he had to dead stick it into the pits. As he roared out of the pits in a desperate attempt to make up ground, Earnhardt popped an engine and fell to 14th in the final rundown. Bodine cruised on to the win unmolested, leading Labonte, Waltrip, Bobby Hillin and Benny Parsons to the stripe. It was the first Daytona 500 victory for car owner Rick Hendrick, who was defying conventional wisdom by running a two-car team that year. Junior Johnson was the only other team owner to field two cars that year for the full schedule, and pundits of the time liked to point out, “Rick Hendrick is no Junior Johnson.”
When the Winston Cup tour returned to Daytona in February of 1987, two people felt like they had some unfinished business – Elliott and Lady Luck, who had smiled on Bodine the previous year. Once again defying conventional logic, Rick Hendrick showed up at Daytona with three teams. Bodine was back with Hendrick, Parsons was subbing for Tim Richmond, who had contracted a mysterious illness after dominating the second half of the 1986 season, and a new team had been added for Waltrip, who had split with Junior Johnson (there was a race in 1987 where Hendrick in fact had six cars on the track.) Elliott showed everyone he was on a mission after the previous year’s misfortune by taking the pole at 210.364 mph. That decades-old record is probably going to stand a very long time, as later that season NASCAR would start requiring restrictor plates (or “pile-up plates” as some folks refer to them) at Daytona and Talladega. Things didn’t go as planned for Bill in the first qualifier race however. He set up Ken Schrader for the traditional last-lap slingshot pass, but Schrader expertly blocked the move and beat Elliott to the stripe by less than a foot.
During that race, several wrecks showed just how bad things could get at those speeds. Phil Barkdoll flipped and hit the wall airborne and upside down. Tommy Ellis got involved in a grinding crash that sent him rolling as well and scattered debris the length of the straightaway. Waltrip finished third and Baker was fourth. Parsons earned the “Tiny Lund Substitute Driver” award by winning the second qualifier race in place of the ailing Richmond. He beat Bobby Allison by almost two seconds, and Bodine finished third in the other Hendrick car. All three of Rick’s cars finished in the top three in the qualifiers. Davey Allison was with a new team, the Ranier-Lundy Ford with Robert Yates as a crew chief. The Ranier operation would become Robert Yates Racing when Robert purchased the team. Davey’s luck improved to the point that he managed a sixth in the second qualifier, just ahead of Junior Johnson’s new driver Labonte.
The 1987 Daytona 500 was run without any major wrecks. The caution flag flew just four times for 15 laps total, allowing the winner to average 176.263 mph. All three of Hendrick’s cars led laps during the event, but it was clear that once again Elliott had the strongest horse that day. In the later stages of the race, Parsons, Bodine and Earnhardt all seemed to be closing the gap. Petty was also looking like the King of old, and the crowd roared when he took the lead with 10 laps to go while the other leaders were pitting. Parsons missed his pit stall and had to back up, losing him valuable time. Earnhardt’s chances were foiled by a slow pit stop that took him out of contention. Bill and his crew on the other hand were flawless, and he was going after Bodine hell’s bells. Lady Luck called in her marker on Bodine, whose crew chief Gary Nelson decided to roll the dice and try to stretch out the fuel mileage to the end. Ironically enough, Bodine ran out of gas with three laps left, on lap 197, the same lap that Earnhardt had run out of gas giving Geoff the win the previous year.
Elliott regained the lead and beat Parsons to the line by almost precisely the same amount of time Parsons had surrendered in the pits, 3.6 seconds. Petty had his best 500 in years and finished third. Baker, Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Schrader, Waltrip, Ricky Rudd and Yarborough closed out the top 10. Talk about an all-star lineup, the top 10 was a virtual Hall of Fame in NASCAR, with those drivers now accounting for 23 championships, 631 wins and 20 Daytona 500 victories between them. Elliott won over $200,000 for the first time in Daytona 500 history. It was also Petty’s last top-five finish in the Daytona 500. Baker and Yarborough also share that dubious honor with the King after that year’s event. The changing of the guard was underway, but the veterans were due for one last hurrah.
1988 marked the arrival of modern day restrictor-plate racing in the Daytona 500. Speeds were off accordingly and Schrader took the pole in Hendrick’s Chevy at a tick under 194 mph, more than 16 mph off Elliott’s pole speed of a year before. The old “Slingshot Pass on the Last Lap” trick had to be retired as well. In the first qualifier, Bobby Allison stormed around Rudd on lap 20 to take a lead he never relinquished. Rusty Wallace and Schrader finished second and third. The bumper-to-bumper freight-train racing caused by restrictor plates helped set off a fiery lap 3 crash. Ralph Jones got sideways, and veteran independent driver JD McDuffie was unable to avoid the spinning car. McDuffie’s car went up in a fireball and he was rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns. Waltrip took the lead from Davey Allison on the first lap and led the rest of the crash-strewn event, the first time there had been a flag-to-flag victory in a qualifier since 1960. Earnhardt finished second, and polesitter Davey Allison managed to salvage third.
The 1988 Daytona 500 has left fans who saw the race with two indelible memories. Petty was involved in a savage crash on the 106th lap of the race. Barkdoll and the King made contact, getting Petty out of shape. AJ Foyt was unable to avoid Petty’s out-of-control Pontiac and the No. 43 car went airborne, hit the fence that separated the grandstands from the track and began a violent series of rolls. Watching the wreck, it was hard to believe Petty could even have survived it, but Petty suffered little worse than a sprained ankle. Also eliminated in wrecks that day were Yarborough in his last Daytona 500 and Alan Kulwicki, who got tangled up in the aftermath of the Petty incident.
Bobby Allison and his longtime nemesis Waltrip were the class of the field that day, but Darrell dropped a cylinder that also dropped him from contention for the lead. Davey Allison mounted a late-race charge trying to catch his father, but the effort fell just short, with Davey finishing a scant two car-lengths behind Bobby in one of the more memorable of all Daytona 500s. Certainly the obvious joy in victory lane that day was one of the most heartwarming memories this writer has of that, or any other race. The win is made more poignant in retrospect, because no one knew that would be Bobby Allison’s final Daytona 500. A few months later at Pocono, Bobby was involved in a wicked crash that almost took his life and did end his career as a driver.
Gas mileage played a key factor in the 1989 Daytona 500, and a driver who had a Daytona jinx of his own finally broke through as a result. Schrader seemed to have the quickest car that year, and he once again claimed the pole for the Hendrick organization. The ’89 Daytona 500 was to have been the debut race for the new Goodyear Eagle radial, but things went badly amiss. Both Elliott and Earnhardt were involved in hard wrecks due to tire failures while practicing on the tires. Elliott broke his wrist and would wind up only being able to run five laps of the 500 before putting a relief driver in the car. Goodyear hastily withdrew the radials and brought in the old bias-ply tires.
The first qualifier was marred by an ugly 14-car wreck that decimated the field set off by a collision between Lake Speed and Rick Wilson. Bonnett, Wallace and Rudd were among the name drivers who were eliminated in the wreck. Kyle Petty, making his debut with Felix Sabates’s team, received extensive damage and while he was able to work his way up to 17th, that was not good enough to earn a starting spot in the 500. Schrader dominated the event and took the win followed by Morgan Shepherd, Mark Martin and Phil Parsons (Benny’s brother). In the second event, Labonte took the win by driving conservatively and not having to make a pit stop. Earnhardt led most of the race before having to pit and turn the lead over to Bodine. When Geoff pitted as well, Labonte inherited the lead and the tortoise beat the hares. Marlin, Earnhardt, Bodine and Gant finished second through fifth respectively. A botched pit stop dropped Richard Petty two laps off the pace, relegating him to 17th position. Had it not been for a provisional starting position available to him, the King would have missed the race. Having a somewhat better day was Dale Jarrett, making his debut in Cale Yarborough’s team car and finishing a respectable 10th.
Schrader had the fastest car at that year’s event and dominated most of the race, especially in the second half. Davey Allison’s Daytona debut with the new Robert Yates team ran into a snag when Bodine got into the back of the No. 28 Ford. Allison was sent spinning, hit a dirt embankment, and rolled the car onto its roof on the 23rd lap. The car was uprighted and repaired and Allison returned to the fray, but finished 25th, seven laps off the leader’s pace. After the race, Allison went after Bodine and the two had to be separated. Not as fortunate was Ernie Irvan, who lost an engine on lap 8 and wound up 41st.
Schrader and Earnhardt were having at it when both had to pit with 11 laps left to go. Kulwicki inherited the lead with Waltrip on his tail. Both drivers intended to try to stretch their fuel mileage to the end, and at least on paper Kulwicki had the advantage. Alan’s chances at a win were flattened when he had a tire go down four laps from the finish. Waltrip inherited the lead and took the win, with so little fuel left in his Monte Carlo he ran out of gas on the way to victory lane. The win snapped a 17-year-old jinx at the Daytona 500 for Waltrip, and he celebrated in victory lane as only the clown prince of racing could, doing a parody of a football player’s post touchdown dance he called the “Icky shuffle.” Team Hendrick had reason to celebrate all around despite Schrader’s heartbreaking loss. Schrader had finished second and Bodine fourth in the other two Hendrick cars, the best finish that team had in the 500 up until 1997. And of course it was vivid proof that the pundits had been wrong all along, and a three-car operation could not only be successful, but dominate. In stark contrast to 1987, the top 10 at the Daytona 500 had only one Daytona 500 victory between them (Bodine in fourth), not including Darrell’s victory that day. The torch had been passed.