In 1985, Bill Elliott and Melling Racing earned 11 NASCAR Cup Series victories and claimed the coveted Winston Million bonus for winning three of the sport’s four crown-jewel races in the same season.
But the team fell short of collecting the Cup Series championship, with Darrell Waltrip and team owner Junior Johnson earning the title. Three years later, Elliott and his brothers, Dan and Ernie, were back in championship form, but 1988 was a different type of season entirely.
There were 14 different winners, a Cinderella finish to the Daytona 500 and a new winner who surprised everyone with his post-race celebration.
When 1983 Cup Series champion Bobby Allison rolled into Daytona Int’l Speedway for Speedweeks with Stavola Brothers Racing, he and his No. 12 Buick were the talk of the garage area. The 50-year-old superstar was a heavy favorite, especially after winning his 125-mile qualifier on Thursday and topping the 300-mile Xfinity Series race on Saturday.
Many believed winning a third Daytona 500 to match his efforts of 1978 and ’82 was a strong possibility.
During the closing laps of the Daytona 500, Allison’s son Davey, driving the No. 28 Ford, was glued to his dad’s rear bumper, challenging for his first Daytona 500 triumph.
The elder Allison held on to claim his 85th and final Cup Series victory and became the oldest winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious event.
“I could see the nose of Davey’s car out of the corner of my eye,” said Allison, whose car was sponsored by Miller High Life. “But I was pretty sure I had enough suds to beat him back to the line.”
On a side note, Richard Petty took one of the worst tumbles of his 32-year career, flipping and barrel rolling numerous times during a multi-car accident on lap 104. Petty suffered a broken left ankle and bruises.
Four months later on June 19, 1988, Bobby Allison was badly injured in a crash at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway and he never raced again.
“I thought I was going to race forever but what happened at Pocono changed everything,” Allison said recently. “I don’t remember winning the 1988 Daytona 500 because of the head injuries I suffered. That has never come back and may never come back. I’ve watched the video of the race and I see me and Davey racing and I see where I’ve won and he finishes second and it looks great but I don’t remember it. I really wish that I did. After all this time, I still don’t remember it.”
Neil Bonnett shattered his right leg in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 1987. After months of intense rehabilitation, Bonnett returned to driving with a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500.
He followed that with back-to-back victories at Richmond (Va.) Raceway and North Carolina’s Rockingham Speedway.
“Recovering from leg injuries was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever faced,” Bonnett said at Richmond. “Some of my close friends gave me a lot of encouragement, and if I had listened to a few other people my career would have been over after that wreck at Charlotte. I knew I was capable of coming back. And that’s what makes winning this race so special.”
Allison and Bonnett began a string of 14 different race winners throughout the 1988 season.
Elliott and Rusty Wallace each won six races, while Dale Earnhardt won three and Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison each won twice. Single victories went to Lake Speed, Terry Labonte, Phil Parsons, Geoff Bodine, Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd and Alan Kulwicki.
Kulwicki made history by performing what he called a “Polish Victory Lap” (driving clockwise around the one-mile track) after winning his first Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway.
Fans loved seeing the new faces in victory lane as Speed, Parsons, Schrader and Kulwicki all won for the first time.
“Winning at Talladega in 1988 helped me to fulfill a lifelong dream,” Parsons said recently. “Driving a race car was the only thing I had ever wanted to do since I was 5 years old and to win a Cup Series race was really special to me. I would have loved to have won a lot more and even though that didn’t happen, I can still say I won at NASCAR’s highest level.”
On April 10, Elliott scored his first short-track victory at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Prior to the race, the Dawsonville, Ga., native had won 23 times on superspeedways or road courses.
Elliott led 379 of the 500 laps but had to pass Bodine with two laps remaining to claim the victory.
“Well, we finally got one on a short track, but the way the competition is in Winston Cup racing today, the monkey might be right back on our backs next week,” Elliott said. “We’ve had our problems before and we’ll have them again. The thing to do is always overcome them.”
Unbeknownst to Elliott, he had begun his roller-coaster ride toward the 1988 Cup Series championship.
He and his Melling crew left the Tennessee track fourth in points and had fallen to fifth by the time they returned to victory lane at Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway on June 5.
A tire war between Goodyear and Hoosier had impacted the season leading into Dover with teams frequently switching back and forth between tire brands.
Bonnett used the Hoosiers to win at Richmond and Rockingham but suffered a right-shoulder injury in a crash during the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway that resulted from a blown tire.
Elliott used Hoosiers tires to win at Dover where he won by 21 seconds over Morgan Shepherd, who was the substitute driver for Bonnett in the Rahmoc Pontiac.
“I had gone down almost two laps and I discovered the Goodyears just weren’t as effective on our car after 35 laps or so,” Elliott said. “I decided that switching brands was the only thing that was going to make the difference for us.”
Victories in Daytona’s Firecracker 400 on July 4 and at Pocono on July 24, placed Elliott second in points behind Wallace and the Blue Max Racing team owned by Raymond Beadle.
“I am convinced that our Coors team has matured as a race team and I’ve matured as a driver,” Elliott said. “I think we’re a much stronger team than we were in ’85, but there are a lot more stronger teams now than we had in ’85.”
Davey Allison won at Michigan Int’l Speedway on Aug. 21, taking the lead from Wallace on lap 178 of the 200-lap distance. The reigning rookie of the year dedicated the win to his father, still recovering from his Pocono crash.
“It was a long time coming but I knew we were going to win one,” Allison said during an emotional interview. “The guys on the crew never gave up. They just kept working harder. They knew I wanted to win for my dad and they’re the ones that deserve the credit for helping me get this victory.”
No one walked away from the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway disappointed, as Elliott, Wallace and Earnhardt established themselves as the trio of championship contenders for the stretch run.
Lap after lap, Wallace and Earnhardt traded the lead but Elliott took the checkered flag for his second Labor Day weekend victory at the historic 1.33-mile superspeedway.
“We won the race because of our last pit stop, I got out in front of Rusty and Dale and I knew they’d be fighting each other,” Elliott said. “That allowed me to put a little distance on them.”
A final victory for Elliott at Dover on Sept. 18 kept him ahead of Wallace for the remainder of the season.
Even though Wallace was called “Mr. October” with wins at North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Rockingham and Atlanta, Elliott held the point lead from the Aug. 27 event at Bristol through the final checkered flag, beating Wallace by 24 points.
“The guys on my team are people I grew up with and have spent much of my life with. These are more than workers or employees or pit crew members. They are my friends,” Elliott said. “This accomplishment of winning the Winston Cup is as much for them as it is for anyone else.”