It may not have been where he got his “Awesome” nickname, but Bill Elliott certainly significantly added to that legacy 30 years ago with an awesome race at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was on May 5, 1985, during the Winston 500 at NASCAR’s longest and arguably most challenging racetrack, that Elliott recorded not only his 8th career Winston Cup win, it became one of the greatest comebacks for a win the sport has ever seen.
And this weekend celebrates Elliott’s near-incredible rally. He started from the pole and crossed the start-finish line first, but as the late announcer Paul Harvey used to say, now you’ll “know the rest of the story.”
Elliott led 25 laps in the early going of the race. Things were looking good until he was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 48 when an oil fitting line in his infamous Ford Thunderbird broke.
By the time the oil line was repaired and the future NASCAR Hall of Famer was back on the track, he was nearly two laps behind the leaders. His hopes of winning did not look good.
Starting with the season-opening Daytona 500 and having won three of the first eight races of the season – which would be the cornerstone of an eventual 11-win season – Elliott and team owner Harry Melling never wavered that they could get their car back in the race.
And that’s exactly what they did, as Ernie Elliott’s engine somehow allowed his brother to make up two laps in less than 100 laps.
Not only did Bill Elliott regain the laps he lost, he also regained the lead on Lap 145, passing Cale Yarborough.
Elliott would hold the lead through Lap 159 of the 188-lap event, yielding one last time to Yarborough. But nine laps after Yarborough took the point, Elliott once again stormed right back and would hold on to the lead for the final 20 laps, winning by a 1.72-second margin.
Only three drivers wound up on the lead lap at the checkered flag: the winning Elliott, runner-up Kyle Petty and third-place finisher Yarborough.
Surprisingly, for a place that would be forced to adopt restrictor plates three years later, there was very little carnage in the 1985 event, with just two cautions for a grand total of eight laps. It was that long burst of green-flag racing that allowed Elliott to make up all of earlier lost ground.
Winning the Winston 500 wasn’t just another win for Elliott, it was also the second leg of a three-part trifecta that season which would earn him a cool $1 million for winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and the Southern 500 in Darlington.
(He finished 18th in the only other race that was part of the Winston Million bonus stakes, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.)
On Wednesday, Elliott climbed back into that same car and took to Talladega’s high banks to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that spectacular day.
Here’s Elliott’s recollection:
“I will never forget that day in 1985. I remember coming down pit road and our guys dealing with the oil line issue. We went back out and ran wide open and I was totally shocked the motor lived all day long … totally shocked.
“We were a bunch of misfits put together, 12 of us total on the team, and that included the motor shop and the chassis shop. Most of the guys who pitted the car came in on weekends. We all had a good understanding of the race cars, though. It seems like it was yesterday.
“I about kissed everything good bye because I didn’t know what happened when it started missing there (and the engine started smoking.) 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. I worked my tail off to try and keep up. I just kept on digging. This old car kept on digging. I want to thank the good Lord for making up those laps. The old car just held together and worked.”