NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.
Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.
On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.
Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.
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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.
Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.
When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.
Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.
“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.
“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”
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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.
“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”
The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.
“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”
Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.
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Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.
“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”
Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.
“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.