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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

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch seeks first Cup points win at Charlotte

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There’s a few notable holes on Kyle Busch‘s Cup Series resume.

He’s never won the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

To be even more specific, he’s never won a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He’s won at every other track on the Cup circuit.

In 28 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Busch has 11 top fives and three runner-up finishes. The most recent was in last year’s Coke 600. That was a week after he won the All-Star race for the first time.

He’s combined for 15 wins at the track in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, making him the track’s winningest driver.

Busch, who has three victories this season, made his effort to finally get a points win at Charlotte easier on Thursday when he qualified first for Sunday’s race.

“It’s important to me, but I’m not sure it’s important in the grand scheme of things,” Busch said of getting a win at Charlotte. “It’s certainly important to me and I would love to get that knocked out-of-the-way and to be finished with it until another new track comes up on the circuit and certainly it’s been a trying time here over the course of my career and to have it come to fruition in a points race, the last I checked I have a trophy at home that says, ‘winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway,’ so I’ll take that to my grave with me if I do never get a points win here. That will be my saving grace I guess.”

Busch came in second in last year’s Coke 600 after a fuel mileage gamble by Austin Dillon‘s team paid off, giving Dillon his first Cup win.

On NASCAR America, Steve Letarte, Landon Cassill and Kyle Petty discussed Busch’s struggle to get a Cup win at the track.

“At some point it’s kind of like Chase Elliott, ‘When’s he going to win? When’s he going to win?'” Letarte said. “Now, I think Kyle Busch feels like, when is he going to win? When is he going to win Charlotte? Starting on the front row matters, but we all know 600 miles … is very, very difficult.”

Watch the above video for more.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kaz Grala, father reveal how Fury Race Cars came to Xfinity Series

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CONCORD, N.C. — The text was sent at 4:04 p.m. on May 9, four days after the last Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway.

The sender was Darius Grala, father of Kaz Grala, the JGL Racing driver who announced May 15 that was no longer his job title.

The receiver was Shane Wilson, the long-time Xfinity crew chief who had worked in that role for Grala through the first 10 races of the season.

(Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The elder Grala asked: “Can u talk?”

That was the moment when Fury Race Cars, the race car building company Grala founded in 2016 with Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz, started becoming an Xfinity Series team.

PUTTING THE TEAM TOGETHER

It wasn’t official until Kaz Grala, 19, drove onto the track Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in his No. 61 Ford.

It capped a 15-day scramble for the Gralas, Wilson and other members of Fury Race Cars to become the newest Xfinity team. The effort was announced May 18.

It started with Darius Grala’s text. He had just gotten off the phone with JGL Racing owner James Whitener, who had offered to give them three of their Roush Fenway Racing built cars as a form of severance for Kaz Grala.

“We got the three cars from him because we left on great terms,” Kaz Grala. said. “He was a huge supporter of me, right up until the end, emotionally and financially, you name it. He was a big fan of mine and he helped me kick off my Xfinity career. He wasn’t able to continue funding my ride. He definitely wanted to help however he could.”

That allowed the group to get a “good jump” on the team building process in the midst of a two-week break for the series.

The process was made even easier with five of the six crew members who worked on Grala’s No. 24 car joining the team along with Wilson. They joined an operation in Fury Race Cars that for the last two years was devoted to building modifieds, sports cars and late models.

Darius Grala, a native of Poland who moved to the United States when he was 8, had his own background as a sports car driver. That went along with the extensive time served as NASCAR crew chiefs by Eury and Ricky Viers.

But at Fury Race Cars, they’d never worked with a Xfinity car until this month.

“I don’t want you to think we took it lightly,” Darius Grala said. “Because we didn’t we didn’t want to come and embarrass ourselves. But there wasn’t any question right from the first conversation, obviously being Kaz’s dad I want to do everything I can but after speaking with Tony and Jeff, they were all in 100 percent, whatever we need to do, let’s figure it out.”

The group worked many late nights to get ready for Saturday’s race.

“Yes, you have to get the car built, but you’ve got to have the tool box to organize …. you need to have a pit box,” Kaz Grala said. “You need to have the hauler organized, I needed race suits in eight days, I needed polos. Just every single little thing and one of our biggest challenges, just logistically, was that this came together so late, just trying to get our entry forms in in time for this race and for Pocono. Everything came so quickly, all the little I’s had to be dotted and T’s had to be crossed. All that stuff takes time and we just didn’t have time.”

Kaz Grala walks through the Xfinity Series garage on Thursday. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Even acquiring a fuel can was a hassle.

“They’re not easy to come by, it’s not like you can go to (a store) and buy one of those,” Darius Grala said.

They also had to pick a number.

“We let the team at Fury pick the number,” Kaz Grala said. “Actually you would be surprised when looking into numbers, I know I was, how few are actually on the market. Most of them are not. It really worked out perfectly, because Fury being modifieds is one of their main things that they build and all the guys at Fury are old-time, old-school guys and of course the 61 being Richie Evans’ was immediately what jumped out at them. That was kind of the inspiration for it. Not to mention my mom is actually from Rome, New York, as well, as Richie Evans was. Seemed like a good fit.”

The team loaded up its lone car for the Charlotte race weekend by 9 p.m. Wednesday, placing it in the team’s logo-free white hauler.

“That was the first relief since the day we started,” Darius Grala said.

He had a “really, really good” night of sleep.

A DEAL WITH GOD

With the sun setting on Fury’s first day as an Xfinity team, Kaz Grala pulled his No. 61 Ford into his garage stall – the very last stall meant for the lowest team in points or a new team without any – at the end of final practice.

On his last run, Grala posted the eighth best speed in the session at 179.784 mph. That placed him ahead of Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Dillon and other drivers from big teams.

Where did they get that speed?

Darius Grala observes Xfinity practice atop the Fury Race Cars hauler. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

“I don’t know, I guess a lot of hours and a lot of hard work right there, the car’s pretty darn good,” Grala said. “Couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

Has the driver who has competed in a full season of the Camping World Truck Series (and won one race) and 10 Xfinity races ever felt this good after a practice?

“Not in Xfinity, no,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we’ve been. We were within a couple of tenths of the 22 (Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski). If you’re within a couple of tenths of the 22 then you’re pretty darn good.”

In the Xfinity garage, JGL Racing’s No. 28 Ford driven by Dylan Lupton is parked right across from Fury’s stall. Lupton finished the session 24th.

“We’re still on good terms, we’re friends with all of them,” Grala said. “A little friendly competition, we’re a little bit quicker than them. We’re going to try and stay quicker than them. But we’re trying to be quicker than everyone here.”

The team’s next chance to be quicker than everyone else comes Saturday in qualifying. And the No. 61 team needs to qualify. They also need it to not rain. If it rains, they won’t be in the race.

“There’s 43 cars here and we have zero points,” said Darius Grala, noting the field would be set by owner points. “That’s about the only goal we have right now is we need to make a deal with God on the weather.

Qualifying is set to begin at 10:10 a.m. ET. The chance of rain then is 60 percent.

Regardless of the weather, the team will be back next week at Pocono and the two races after that. That fulfills the original sponsor deal Kaz Grala has with NETTTS, which has backed him since 2013 when he raced in modifieds.

The team is prepared to go beyond those four races, but won’t just stop looking for partners.

“As of right now, yes, it’s been a lot of work, but no one at Fury is scared of work,” Darius Grala said. “We’re looking at this being a step forward if at all possible.”

PJ1 traction agent, tire dragging in use at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway is doing as much as it can to improve the racing product and create opportunities for passing this weekend at the 1.5-mile track.

A blue tractor spent Friday dragging two sets of tires in the upper groove in each turn, an effort to freshen the area where the PJ1 traction agent was applied.

A track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that the substance was added to the upper grooves in both corners on Monday and Tuesday.

The spokesperson was not aware of plans to add more PJ1 or to drag the tires on Saturday.

“The Xfinity cars ran on that PJ1 a lot and definitely activated it and got the grip definitely up there,” Joey Logano said after qualifying second for the Coke 600. “It’s hard for me to say what was what, but, overall, the car got faster and that’s all I really care about.”

Charlotte first used the traction agent in the Coca-Cola 600 last year and again in October. Its presence in that race wasn’t popular due to an uneven application of the substance.

Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway have also used the substance in the last two years.