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Before there were plates: Awesome Bill, Talladega and the 1985 Winston 500

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May 1985 was an interesting time in American and NASCAR history.

As the month opened, the musical achievement of “We are the World” by U.S.A for Africa (AKA 45 artists including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and … Dan Aykroyd) was in its fourth and final week atop the Billboard Hot 100.

In cinemas, the Chuck Norris film Code of Silence (“Eddie Cusack is a good cop having a bad day”) had opened as the No. 1 film.

And in sports, some guy named Bill from Dawsonville, Georgia, was in the process of making himself a household name.

(Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

At 29, Bill Elliott and the No. 9 Coors Light Ford of Melling Racing had won three of the first eight races of the Winston Cup season, including the Daytona 500. As the Winston Cup Series rolled in to Talladega, Alabama, Elliott was fourth in the standings, 81 points behind leader Geoffrey Bodine.

In its first year of existence, Elliott was aiming to win the “Winston Million.” If a driver won three of four races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway or the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – they’d win $1 million.

Pretty simple.

There’s one big difference between a race at Daytona and Talladega in 1985 and 2017: restrictor plates. The metal plate that bunches fields together and regularly causes “The Big One” today was still three years away in 1985.

The driver with the fastest car could literally run away, hide from the rest of the field and lap them a few times if lucky.

That’s the way the world was May 5, 1985. Bill Elliott sat on the pole and Cale Yarborough’s No. 28 Hardee’s Ford was second. Only 39 cars started the race (after Greg Sacks pulled out for engine problems). It was the smallest Talladega field ever at the time.

All of the following YouTube videos in this post combine race footage with radio broadcast by MRN Radio. They’re heavily edited, condensing the two-hour and 41 minute race to about 60 minutes.

Barney Hall, Mike Joy and Danny Sullivan were on the call and Dr. Jerry Punch and Ned Jarrett were in the pits.

At the drop of the green, Yarborough quickly assumed the lead, followed by Kyle Petty as Elliott fell back to fifth.

Elliott would take the lead for the first time on Lap 6 and would lead the strung out field for 22 circuits of the 2.66-mile track. Then on Lap 28, a fellow named Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. The 35-year-old driver had already won at Talladega twice, in the fall of 1983 and 1984. Spoiler alert: he wouldn’t win there again until 1990, three years into his sponsorship deal with Goodwrench.

Around Lap 37, the leaders begin pitting for the first time. Pit road in 1985 was a very different place. A speed limit didn’t exist (and wouldn’t until 1991 following the death of crew member Mike Rich in an accident in the 1990 finale) and pit stops went by at leisurely Sunday pace.

Leader to the Rear

We have a development! Around Lap 48, with Earnhardt leading Richard Petty, Elliott had just taken third from Yarborough when smoke erupted from his No. 9 Ford on the frontstretch. Elliott was able to make it back to pit road. The hood went up on his car.

“If it is indeed engine trouble, it would be the first time since 1982 that the Elliott team has lost an engine in a Grand National stock car race,” Mike Joy informed listeners.

It would turn out to be a problem with the oil pump. Which is funny given the “Melling Oil Pumps” logos on the car’s rear quarter panels.

“I about kissed everything good bye because I didn’t know what happened when it started missing there,” Elliott said in 2015. “But, they raised the hood and got it fixed faster than I thought they would. It felt like I sat there six or 10 laps.”

According to book “NASCAR: The Complete History,” Elliott returned to the track in 26th, 2.03 seconds from going two laps down.

If I know my NASCAR, Elliott’s day was clearly done, folks.

 

It wasn’t over, folks.

Fifty-four laps were complete in the Winston 500 when Barney Hall gave listeners an update.

“That five-car draft has broken away from the rest of the field and Bill Elliott continues to drive away from the now leader Cale Yarborough. A moment ago the interval was about three seconds, he was in danger of going two laps down, but now he’s going to make sure they do not catch him.”

Indeed.

An Era of Attrition

If you look at a post-race report from Talladega or Daytona today, either half the field will be eliminated or only three cars won’t make it to the end. It’s a toss-up.

In 1985, a valve issue made Richard Petty the 13th driver to end their day in the garage. By race’s end, just over half the field, 20 cars, were out. Just one was eliminated via a crash.

Due in part to all the early exits, Elliott was 12th by Lap 101, still a lap down. MRN was clocking the No. 9 Ford at making laps of 46.8 seconds, or about 204 mph.

Eventually, Elliott swept underneath Yarborough to get his lap back in Turn 1. Elliott was able to do all of this without the aid of a caution.

On Lap 145, Elliott used the draft to again surge by Yarborough going into Turn 3 to take the lead.

A caution finally appeared with 28 to go as Bodine smacked the wall out of Turn 4. In the pits, Yarborough beat Elliott off pit road.

On Lap 169, Elliott once again charged by Yarborough to retake the lead. The moment is marked by a loud cheer heard over the MRN broadcast. It’s reminiscent of the many times an Earnhardt would take the lead at the track.

World Record

Fourteen laps from the finish, the final caution waived for the one-car crash of Eddie Bierschwale.

The field would pit with Elliott winning the race off pit road. But during the potentially race deciding pit stops, one team that was out of the race took that moment to push their car back up pit road as cars exit their stalls, including Elliott’s. During a previous pit stop, a camera man could be seen standing in the infield grass as cars zoomed by.

From my couch in 2017, 1985 pit stops were scary.

The final restart came with 10 to go and Elliott leading.

The closing laps would be decided by Elliott, Yarborough and Kyle Petty. This is significant because they were the only cars on the lead lap.

The last time a restrictor-plate race ended with 10 or less cars on the lead lap was the July 1995 race at Talladega (nine cars).

Petty’s performance was aided by the fact that fellow Ford driver Elliott had given the Wood Brothers Racing his exact chassis set up that weekend.

When Elliott took the white flag, no one was within striking distance of the No. 9 Ford. There would be no draft induced last-lap heroics. Ninety-seven laps after his unexpected pit road visit, Elliott won the Winston 500 by 1.72 seconds over Kyle Petty.

“If Bill hadn’t helped us, we wouldn’t have been able to finish second,” Eddie Wood said. “And when someone puts on a performance like he did, making up two laps under green, they deserve to win.”

Bill Elliott’s historic win was his eighth victory in the Winston Cup Series. The average speed for the Winston 500 was 186.288 mph, a word record for a 500-mile race. The average speed of the race in 2016 was 140.046 mph.

Said crew chief Ernie Elliott, “We’re going to go faster, if the good Lord’s willing.”

Two races later, in Charlotte, Bill Elliott would fail to clinch the “Winston Million” when a mechanical problem caused him to finish the Coke 600 in 18th.

But come September, Elliott became the first of two men to ever claim the $1 million prize when he won the Southern 500.

In addition to the money, the achievement put Elliott on the Sept. 9 cover of Sports Illustrated.

The “Winston Million” would not be awarded again until 1997, when Jeff Gordon won it in its final year of existence.

Elliott would continue to have speed at Talladega. The 1985 Winston 500 was the first of six-straight poles for Elliott at the superpeedway. But his second and last win in Alabama wouldn’t come until the fall 1987 race.

That year, Elliott also set the NASCAR qualifying record at 212.229 mph.

MORE: Chase Elliott’s wears shoes honoring father’s 1987 record.

In 1985, Elliott and his No. 9 team would win 11 times, the most in Elliott’s 37 years of Cup competition. But thanks to late-season troubles, the title went to Darrell Waltrip, who only had three wins, but more top fives and top 10s than Elliott.

Elliott’s first and only Cup title would not come until 1988.

The car Elliott drove to his 1985 win was placed in Talladega’s museum the next year. In 2015, it was started for the first time in 30 years as Elliott drove hot laps around the track to commemorate the race’s anniversary.

Whatever happened to: Melling Racing

Harry Melling’s involvement in NASCAR began in 1979 as a sponsor of Benny Parsons. In 1981, the tool manufacturer was also a primary sponsor of the Elliott families’ racing efforts. But in 1982, Melling bought Elliott’s team and made it his own. Together they became one of the dominate forces in NASCAR in the 80s, winning 34 races from 1983 to 1991.

In 1992, Elliott left the team to race for Junior Johnson. Melling Racing would compete on a part-time basis for the next three years before fielding the No. 9 SPAM Ford for Lake Speed in 1995-1996. Speed drove for Melling through 1998. Jerry Nadeau then drove the No. 9 Cartoon Network Ford from 1998 – 1999.

The week of the 199 Coke 600, Harry Melling died of a heart attack at 53. His son Mark took the reins of the team, which competed in 81 more races through 2002. In January 2003, the team ceased operations after failure to secure sponsorship.

While its last race was in August 2002 at Michigan, the team had one last moment of glory seven starts before that with Stacy Compton. On Oct. 21, 2001, a day remembered for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first win at Talladega, Melling Racing began the race in a familiar spot at the superspeedway – the pole position.

This is the second in an occasional series looking back at classic NASCAR races (at least those that are on YouTube).

First entry: Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s final win at Martinsville

Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.

Rick Hendrick on Kasey Kahne’s future: ‘Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne has a contract for 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports but possibly doesn’t have a job next season.

Team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed Sunday night that “our plans are not set for the No. 5 car” after Kahne ended a 102-race winless streak in the Cup Series.

“There’s nothing concrete or done, and that hasn’t changed,” Hendrick said. “We’ll see how things shake out the rest of the year.  There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at.  We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne felt the 18th victory of his career helped him make a case for staying in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I think this shows I still want to win races,” he said. “It shows I gave it all that I can to get a win and shows that I’m passionate about driving stock cars, and that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. I hear a lot of things, but it’s tough to say exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know at this point and time. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. I think this shows that I want to be and still have the drive and passion to do it, so I’m going to keep trying hard I know that.”

During a Sunday morning pre-race news conference to formally introduce Alex Bowman as the replacement next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick said he planned to run four cars next season but deflected a question about Kahne’s status (“that’s for another day”).

Xfinity Series rookie William Byron, who is under contract to Hendrick, would be an option for the No. 5 Chevrolet, but Hendrick said “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet” when asked about Byron’s Cup future.

Kahne is ranked 22nd in the points standings with only four top 10s in 20 races this season.

“When you’ve had a rough road, your confidence gets down,” Hendrick said. “He said, ‘I know I can do it. The harder I try, the more it seems like I have this rough bad luck.’

“Something like this (win) can be really good for any guy to have, the whole team, to have confidence.  … All I can say about Kasey is he shows up, he shows up on time, and he shows up on time with his game face on, and he puts in the effort. Sometimes it just takes a break.  But he’s done everything.  I know in his heart he wants to do it.  He’s trying, so … ”

Ryan Newman on Brickyard 400: ‘That’s not racing, just craziness’

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Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, finishing third.

It was Newman’s second-best finish of 2017 after his win earlier this year at Phoenix.

But Newman, who is never afraid to speak his mind, did just that after Sunday’s race. Even with his strong finish, he echoed the comments of several other drivers that the racing action — particularly restarts — by saying, “That’s not racing, just craziness.”

Check out what Newman had to say in the video above.

Joey Logano’s fourth-place finish is bittersweet as playoff chances dip

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Joey Logano had a bittersweet day in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

He finished a strong fourth in the incident-filled 24th edition of the Brickyard 400. It was just Logano’s second top-five finish and third top-10 showing in the last 11 races.

But there was also bad news, too.

Kasey Kahne‘s win knocked Logano further back in his bid to rejoin the top-16 drivers eligible for the upcoming NASCAR playoffs. With Clint Bowyer dropping out of the top-16 and Kahne moving into playoff contention, Logano has slipped back to 18th place in the playoff-eligible standings.

As a result, Logano all but has to win one of the next six races to qualify for the playoffs — unless he can point his way in with continued strong top-five finishes.

Logano talked about the situation he faces with NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. Click on the above video to see what he had to say.