Words – Mick Palmer
Images © Ted Van Pelt
The 1985 NASCAR season was one where the extreme dichotomy between the teams that ran the championship protagonists could be measured in almost every sinew of the setups that pushed them into a hard fought hunt for the Winston Cup. The Junior Johnson team outwardly looked like it exuded clarity and exemplary perfection in comparison to the stereotype thrown at Melling of being a barnyard troupe of Sock Car builders. Neither were accurate.
Separating the character of the two drivers who faced-off for the title from one another was easy. One, Darrell Waltrip, was a brash, opinionated senior driver of the scene. Hailing from Kentucky he often liked to live up to the moniker of ‘Jaws’ given to him by fans – in reference to his often pretentious outbursts against fellow personalities in the world of Stock Car racing.The other, Bill Elliot, was the perfect homeboy. Rising from the southern heartland of Georgia, a driver who resonated with the working classes on a weekend when he raced loud, fast cars built by his brothers in a workshop at home.
While 1985 was the year where Waltrip realised that the ‘Jaws’ label was one he would rather not be associated with, Elliot was about to pick up two nicknames of his own. Thanks to the connection he had made with NASCAR fans Elliot had been voted the most popular driver in the sport in 1984. They were calling him “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” and he was about to dig the foundations that would make him the most supported driver for a generation of fans. The fastest man in NASCAR was about to rise to that challenge and in addition claim the sobriquet “Million Dollar Bill,” for three very good ‘reasons.’
The Daytona 500 is, of course, the Daddy when it comes to stock car racing. In 1985 the event was the opening race of the season for only the fourth time (replacing Riverside as the NASCAR curtain raiser.) Since its inception in 1959 it had been intended to be the showpiece for the sport. Moving it to the opening position in the schedule was in part due to the success, and notoriety, of the 1979 running of the event.
It was the first fully televised NASCAR race to be broadcast across the nation, a last lap crash and subsequent fist-fight between Cale Yarborough and the brothers Allison (Donnie and Bobby) captured the attention of sports viewers. This brought NASCAR into the national consciousness and the controlling France family realised the value of this needed to be exploited. Kicking off with the biggest race of them all was an indication that.
Yarborough had been the name to encapsulate Daytona with two wins in the two previous seasons. In 1983 he’d become the first driver to top the magic 200mph mark in qualifying. In 1985 he was carrying on where he had left off in pre-season testing. A series of laps topping 203mph in his Rainier run Ford Thunderbird set him once again as the fastest.
Yarborough was looking to complete the hat-trick in a car from a third manufacturer – his wins in 83 and 84 had come via the GM brands Pontiac then Chevrolet. Even though the switch had been made to the blue oval and it was his first time out, he was the firm favourite. Bill Elliot was also consistent in his T-Bird that had been developed separately from the Rainier example. The fastest of the GM cars was the #33 Chevy piloted by Harry Gant.
Ford had run a windtunnel programme headed by Bob Riley, a company guru of sorts, and this was attributed to the reason that the Yarborough car was so fast around the 2.5 mile circuit. A lap recorded at 203.814mph mirrored the speed shown in testing. Cale looked to have locked in the pole position. The Chevy cars were able to match the Ford teams in race trim, but in qualifying it was all about the Thunderbird.
Melling had concentrated on the handling of their T-Bird instead of outright speed. The car had been a threat on super-speedway tracks in 1984 and the team felt that they were now coming to the fore with the cars. The elder Elliot brothers had been working arcane magic on their machines over the winter months – the car for Daytona wasn’t as wide as the regular machines they delivered. The narrow track meant that the wheels could be enclosed further into the bodywork than standard machines thus, critically important at Daytona, meaning drag was reduced.
Ernie Elliot had worked on the engines himself. While Yarborough had blown three V8s based on the US Windsor block, Bill Elliot had ran smooth with his Australian manufactured Cleveland V8 block. A consignment of 15 ex-Penske units had been purchased by Melling, and Ernie had tuned them to perfection.
With the smooth independently developed bodywork, handling set by crew chief Dan Elliot and that faultless engine, Bill took to the track for his run. He kept the car high, all the way around Daytona, there was no need to run low in the turns. It was a perfect run, and it hammered the average speed of Yarborough. Bill ran a lap at 205.114mph. It was sublime.
Elliot carried that form over into the twin 125 qualifying races. Yarborough, who despite the qualifying speed deficit was still favourite, claimed the second race with a last lap move on David Pearson. In the opener Elliot came home ahead of Darrell Waltrip. The fillip being that after 125 miles he finished with an advantage of 37 seconds, and a race average speed of 198mph. Surely there was no way he’d keep that up for the 500 itself was there?
In the Busch Clash race for the 1984 pole winners before qualifying, Elliot had come home third behind Waltrip with defending Cup champion Terry Labonte taking the win. It had looked like it was going to be Cale Yarborough who was going to win the event, but an engine failure on lap 13 of 20 put paid to that. While Yarborough seemed to be the only one who could really challenge Elliot for the 500 on pace, he’d already blown three engines before race day. It now looked questionable as to whether he could nurse one for the full distance. If the Melling Ford of Elliot was able to complete the race then the strains looked like they’d be too much.
A raceday crowd of 140,000 flooded into the Daytona Motor Speedway on February 17. The race they watched was not by any means a classic. Elliot dominated the event as the attrition of the 500 mile race took care of a large portion of the field.
It started off with some promise as Elliot and Yarborough pulled away from the field to fight out their own personal battle. Over the opening laps until the first round of stops Yarborough was able to keep up with the #9 machine – the pair covered the first segment of the race at an average speed of almost 196mph. Ranier called Yarborough in, but Elliot was able to eke out a couple of extra laps from his first tank of fuel, something that at the second round of stops was going to cost Yarborough and his team dearly.
What pitting earlier did do however place was the #28 car three seconds ahead of Elliot as they came back on to the circuit. Travelling half-a-second a lap faster meant that Elliot only took six laps to retake the lead and once again set the pace. At the second round of stops Ranier pushed Yarborough for extra mileage, he ran dry entering the pits. During the push-start to get the car moving again the Ford motor responded by breaking a piston and locking the engine. The one valid challenger to Elliot was out of the race.
Neil Bonnett led the charge after Elliot which was in vain the big names; Allison, Earnhardt and Petty disappeared with engine problems. The Alabama native lost his engine with five laps left bringing out a yellow that closed the field behind Elliot. The only black mark against Bill up until this point had been an enforced 40 second pitstop to rectify a damaged headlight cover, apart from that he’d glided away out at the front.
With the final yellow lasting until lap 199 it meant that the only other car on the lead lap, the Rahmoc Pontiac of Lake Speed, was now in contention for the one lap dash to the flag. Elliot wasn’t having that. A clean getaway at the restart saw him bring the T-Bird home a second to the good to take a well deserved win ahead of Speed. The final result was a misrepresentation of the 136 dominant laps that he’d spent in the lead, but Elliot was happy with the result, he quipped: “During last season, I was thinking about the Daytona 500, even when we had other races to run. If I never win again I’ve accomplished my main goal.”
Behind Elliot and Speed came Waltrip in third. After blowing an engine in qualifying and starting in 21st “Jaws” had quietly conserved his car to trail Elliot in the standings by 20 points. It was a portent of how the coming season would play out.
One week later saw Waltrip as the polesitter at Richmond. The half-mile track (it was extended to its current three-quarter mile configuration in 1988) exposed a major weakness in the Melling/Elliot camp. The team might have been able to build and run on the fast tracks, but short ovals was not yet something the team was effective in building cars for.
Elliot started in 13th and was classified in 22nd after a crash on the 332nd lap. Waltrip equalled the third place that he’d scored in Daytona. Dale Earnhardt took the victory after a typically forceful display. After contact with Terry Labonte early on “The Intimidator” had deposed Geoff Bodine and Waltrip to take a win in his own inimitable style. The end result meant that Waltrip, after two rounds was leading the championship standings with 240 points. Elliot, in fourth was already 58 adrift.
Bonnett laid waste to the ghost of his Daytona engine failure next time out at Rockingham. Waltrip suffered tyre dramas all day and was classified in 18th. Elliot crashed out a little after half distance. They fell to second and 10th in the standings as the championship took a one week break before heading into what was for Elliot his home race.
Jody Ridley, the 1980 NASCAR Rookie of the Year, travelled to Atlanta with the Elliot boys. He was prepared to take over the car from Bill so that Elliot could claim the points thanks to a car swap during the race. The accident at Rockingham had caused some pain which was diagnosed as a broken leg. Elliot needed the points so had to start the race and run to the first stop to allow Ridley to finish the day off, he ended up spending the race on pitrow twiddling his thumbs as Elliot cruised to a dominant win.
With Atlanta being a high speed track Yarborough had been the main challenger early on until his engine, predictably, blew itself apart. Waltrip was close to a podium finish when his Chevy powerplant gave up with twelve laps left. The refusal to be cowed by mere broken bones combined with the misfortune of his nearest rivals meant that Elliot had climbed to fifth in the championship, one place behind Waltrip.
It was three weeks before the cars were racing again. A fortnight break before Bristol, which was put back a week because of rain, allowed Elliot to rest his leg. It also allowed Waltrip some time to appraise his situation. It was known that he wasn’t entirely happy with the setup at Junior Johnson’s team. It was a surprise however when press reports emerged of his plan to form his own team for 1986. On the track Waltrip blew an engine and Elliot came home 15 laps down on the winner, Dale Earnhardt. Both Elliot and Waltrip were had fallen quite a way back in the championship chase.
Darlington was the first race where both drivers were in contention for the win until the end. Elliot won convincingly from pole while Waltrip battled Tim Richmond over the closing laps in an exciting face-off which saw him just grasp second at the flag. Waltrip equalled that at North Wilksboro seven days later. Elliot came home a reasonable sixth, considering the problems the team were having on the short tracks it was a decent result.
Elliot departed the circuit and headed to Talladega to test the car to be raced at The Winston 500 a couple of weeks later. Once again the superiority of the Elliot/Melling workshop shone through. Bill lapped the giant superspeedway at an average speed of 207.107mph, before heading onwards to the Martinsville short-track. Waltrip took pole, it was a dismal afternoon where neither featured in the race.
The Winston 500 was a race where the expected Jekyll and Hyde performance from Melling and Elliot was exposed at the head of the field again, but with added spice this time. It was a race where they were not only able to demonstrate how far ahead of the field their package was, but they came from behind – a long way behind, to show it.
The advantage that the Ford Thunderbird had over the General Motors branded cars (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick) had not gone unnoticed by NASCAR. In an attempt to bring parity on the fast tracks, the governing body delivered an edict that required the Ford teams to up their ride height by half an inch, and for the GM squads to lower theirs by the same amount.
It didn’t stop the T-Bird charge.
Elliot topped the timesheets and took a comfortable pole position. The 207mph lap set in testing before the Martinsville race was trounced as Bill pushed himself and the car to the limit with a bombastic performance that delivered a 209.398mph average on his pole lap. Rumours of cheating were rife. How could a team be so dominant time and again. The answer to that was plain old hard work and decent planning.
The race went 159 straight laps from the start before a yellow came out. Elliot didn’t jump into the lead and disappear over the horizon leaving a trail of dust for his rivals to eat. He didn’t even lead the first lap, that accolade went to Yarborough who surrendered his lead after four at the front where Kyle Petty took over. One lap later and Elliot took point at the head of the field for 22 laps. After that Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte and Richard Petty got in on the act too.
Elliot hit pit row on lap 60 with a broken oil fitting. It took two laps for the squad to effect repairs before sending him back out. It was here where Elliot blatantly displayed his superiority.
Yarborough was now the favourite, if his engine could last. Long periods in the lead were punctuated only during the pit cycles. Behind him Elliot was, in race trim, lapping at an average of 204mph, which was much, much faster than the rest of the field. The #9 Thunderbird ran like clockwork as Bill piled in lap after lap at a stupefyingly high rate. Fast enough to unlap himself.
Elliot was driving like a man possessed. In the time it took for him to complete 85 laps from pit in with oil problems, the leaders only covered 83, which, when you add the numbers explains how it came to be that Elliot took over the lead of the race on lap 145. From being two laps down. On a 200mph plus two-and-a-half mile superspeedway, without the help of a caution period to make up time and positions. The win was one of the all time great NASCAR performances, truly a race of the ages.
Waltrip was nowhere to be seen. Having suffered a piston failure he didn’t finish and walked away with just over $11,000 in prize money. Elliot scored $60,000, but if it was now a case of the money talking, he was one step away from a cool million dollar bonus.
In late 1984 The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, the lead sponsor of NASCAR, decided that sponsoring the Winston Cup through it’s Winston brand of cigarettes wasn’t enough. The company added an incentive – The Winston Million. Reynolds decided that any drier who could win three of the four showcase races across the season would receive a $1million bonus. The Daytona 500, The Winston 500 at Talladega, The Coca-Cola World 600 at Charlotte and The Southern 500 at Darlington were the four races in question. Elliot had already taken Daytona and Talladega. If he could win one of the other two events then he’d need a larger wallet.
Thoughts of an extra payday were put to the back of the mind as the teams headed for Dover Downs. Waltrip finished fifth, albeit three laps down on the winner, that being Bill Elliot. The result elevated him to the top of the points standings with a total of 1497, which was 19 ahead of Geoff Bodine in second and 134 ahead of Waltrip in sixth.
Heading south-west the teams travelled down to Charlotte, North Carolina. The race weekend was to feature a new innovation that has since become a permanent fixture in the sport. Once again it was thanks to series sponsor RJ Reynolds and their appetite to advertise their Winston brand of cigarettes.
Despite the fact that Winston was in the title of the championship, the trophy awarded to the winning driver contained the name, the Talladega race was named after the brand and the new Winston Million grand slam had been introduced, the name was absent on TV. The introduction of a shootout race on the Saturday for all the drivers who had won races in 1984 was their latest marketing ploy. The event, now known as the All-Star race, gets a full weekend to itself these days, but it’s heritage lies in the fact that this had never been tried before, and was simply titled “The Winston.” Whereas the other Winston led initiatives could be ignored and converted into “The 500” or just “The Cup”, The Winston was just that – The Winston.
The non-points scoring event saw Elliot come home in seventh. For Waltrip and the Junior Johnson team it was a chance to examine what it would take, fuel wise, to win the 600 mile race on Sunday. As it turned out Waltrip won after a late race tussle with Harry Gant, which was a dress rehearsal for the following day
The World 600, now sponsored for the first time by Coca-Cola, was the longest race on the schedule. Its traditional place on the calendar meant it was in competition with the biggest race in the country, the Indianapolis 500. This was the third race in the Winston Million challenge. Could the draw of a man possibly picking up a huge pile of cash tempt sports fans to look south away from Indy?
Elliot, on his mission to crack the Winston safe and lift his dough, dutifully put the Melling-Ford on pole. The lead was his for the first 13 laps, after which Bodine, Waltrip, Lennie Pond, Bobby Allison, Earnhardt and Richmond took turns leading.
Elliot began to suffer with brake problems, then tyre struggles. Mixed with an intermittent radio he had a tough day where he dropped down to finish in 18th. For Waltrip it was a smooth and calculated run.
Waltrip and Earnhardt raced each other hard through the mid-portion of the race but Waltrip had the measure of the #3 car. Taking the lead with 75 laps to go Waltrip struggled to hold off Gant who went by after three to run the longest stint at the front of the pack during the race. After his 63 lap run in the lead Waltrip took up the place with 10 to go. It had already been 100 laps since his last pitstop for fuel. The laps went by agonisingly for his crew in the pits as he went by again, and again running on empty. The calculations from the Johnson team had Waltrip lapping closer to the edge through those few minutes. With the entire organisation holding its breath Waltrip took the chequered flag after four hours and thirteen minutes, signalling that he was still in the chase for the Winston Cup.
Waltrip rose to fifth in points, Elliot dropped to second. The first of two shots at the million dollars was gone. The team would have to wait three months for a second go in Darlington.
Terry Labonte took the next race at the Riverside roadcourse. What was once the opening race of the season ahead of the Daytona 500 had been won previously by both Elliot and Waltrip. The pair couldn’t repeat that in 1985.
The first of two mid-season trips to Pocono witnessed Waltrip scoring a pole on one of the big circuits. He was in contention all day long, a fierce battle with Bodine and Elliot lasted through the whole race. The first of three caution flags dropped with 24 laps remaining. This brought Harry Gant into the fold, but he didn’t have the pace to prevent Elliot from taking yet another win.
The relentless pace of the series continued into Michigan a week later before a week off. The first 50 laps there was all about Elliot and Waltrip. The final result placed Elliot in first ahead of Waltrip. It was the halfway point of the season, 14 of 28 races had been run, Elliot had won half of them. Compared to the seven victories he’d racked up, Waltrip had one. As well as finishing in the top two spots in the race, they were now the two lead title contenders. Elliot, on 2126 points was only 86 ahead of Waltrip. The Tortoise was catching the hare.
Independence day marked the resumption of hostilities. The traditional mid-season second race at Daytona was still held on the day itself, as opposed to the trend today for racing on the fourth of July weekend. The Wednesday qualifying for the Thursday race resulted in another pole for Elliot.
Equalling the lap speed of 205mph in qualifying for the Daytona 500 was never on the cards. Carburettor restrictions slowed the cars but Elliot still delivered a 201mph lap. In the race Elliot finished second, ahead of Waltrip. They retained the top spots in the title chase, but the day was not about either of them, it was all about Greg Sacks in possibly the greatest upset in NASCAR history.
Bobby Allison was settled at DiGard. The team was effectively his. To support Allison they entered an extra car at Daytona for research and development purposes. Greg Sacks was placed in the car and was to run until the first set of pitstops where he would head to the garage and change shock absorbers before rejoining to evaluate changes. The problem was that he qualified ninth and immediately rose up the field to challenge for the lead!
DiGard made the decision to keep Sacks in the car. Even though he didn’t have a proper crew to service him on pitlane, or have the full use of a spotter. A motley crew of personnel was jury-rigged together to keep the car going. The Chevy Monte Carlo had three stints at the head of the field. Including the last nine laps.
The victory was a shock to the system for the big teams. Elliot, who had struggled with a fuel system problem, admitted that even with his T-Bird on full song he didn’t have any hope of catching Sacks.
Inevitably there were accusations that DiGard were cheating. If rival teams were unhappy that Sacks had won, it was nothing compared to the internal ramifications for the squad. Allison quit the team in the days following the race feeling that they’d embarrassed him. He set up his own team and took engine builder (and later team owner) Robert Yates with him. Sacks was given the seat for the rest of the year, but would never win another Cup race.
Pocono was up next. The second trip of the year to the Long Pond circuit delivered, yet again, a win for Bill Elliot. Waltrip was on pole, after Geoff Bodine had his times excluded for the use of illegal fuel. Two weeks after the race Waltrip was stripped of his pole for the same reason. Elliot was awarded the points for a first placed start. The winning margin was five seconds over Neil Bonnett. It was a race that the Melling crew and Elliot spent working on the car from stop to stop. It was the probably hardest won victory of the year in terms of balancing the car. Was the tide in the championship about to change direction again?
The answer to that was a plain no. The second trip to Talladega was another benefit for Elliot in qualifying. The speed this time was 207.578mph. He would have most likely took the race too if he hadn’t needed to nurse the engine over the final 20 laps. Yarborough took advantage and snatched the win. Elliot trundled home in fourth with Waltrip in ninth.
Back to Michigan for the second race at that venue and Elliot made contact with Bonnett on the opening lap. Despite the mishap he once again converted a pole position into a win. Waltrip was this time able to challenge. Leading until three quarters distance, Waltrip held onto and challenged Elliot to the flag. The gap between the two in the points standings had been steadily growing over the previous few races – they were still the top two in the championship. Despite maintaining the record of winning half of the races so far (9 out of 18), Elliot only led one win Waltrip by 143 points. Bonnet was in third 286 point from the lead. With 175 available for a victory it demonstrated how much the consistency on behalf of Waltrip and his Junior Johnson team was paying dividends. With 175 available for a win, it also exposed how hard Elliot and Melling were suffering on short tracks.
A return to Bristol did show an improved performance for Elliot on a half-mile oval. A fifth position finish after a typical bruising race was only one position behind Waltrip, but it wouldn’t be good enough for the series of short ovals that they’d be racing on soon. Although Waltrip couldn’t beat the #9 Thunderbird on the fast tracks, he could easily pick up top five positions to rack up the points. He could also pick up top five points paying places on the short tracks too. This was where he could put Elliot under pressure. This was where he would absolutely have to push Bill to his limits. But first there was the matter of a one million dollar bonus to get out of the way.
The matter being discussed within the media was not just that Bill Elliot was going to challenge for the Winston Million at the classic Southern 500. Before the race at Darlington the rumours about Waltrip setting up his own team for 1986 were once again front and centre of the news. Unnamed sources pedalled the story and also placed Dale Earnhardt in the Junior Johnson car.
Harry Melling had invested well when he purchased the team ran by the Elliot family. The three brothers had used the backing well to put together a programme that now seemed to be unbeatable on any track over a mile in length. It just seemed like a matter of time before the group could get its act together with a short-track car. If they could run the distance they could piece together the results that would bring the $275,000 bonus that came with winning the Winston Cup. They’d taken at least $100,000 for winning the first two grand slam races, now they needed to focus on the job in hand that outstripped it all in terms of dollars.
The day before the race Elliot took pole. A speed of 156mph around ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame’ was probably more risky than the 200mph+ speeds of Daytona and Talladega. Darlington had a habit of biting back at the smallest mistake. An almost serene and calmed Elliot scored possibly his most relaxed pole of the year. It only delivered a five point bonus, but they were racking up and pushing him further ahead of Waltrip.
The usual suspects were involved in the battle for the lead. Bodine and Gant. Yarborough and Earnhardt. But not Waltrip. Elliot spent 100 of the 367 laps in the lead, while Waltrip fell 12 laps off the pace to finish in 17th.
The late stages of the race saw Earnhardt pushing Elliot for the lead. The Richard Childress driver over-extended the car. A plume of smoke was emanating and the Chevy looped coming out of turn two and brushed the wall. Elliot, chasing, deked left to narrowly avoid the yellow and blue machine and keep his million dollar challenge alive. The resultant front end damage relegated Earnhardt out of contention for the win.
The track went yellow as the debris was cleared. The green flag waved with 42 laps remaining and Cale Yarborough at the front of the field. Elliot slotted in behind the Ranier car and began to close up. In the slipstream he began to inch closer and closer, getting within three quarters of a car length when the rival Thunderbird blew its power steering. A huge cloud of impenetrable, thick white smoke poured out of the underside of Yarborough’s car, blanketing the #9 of Elliot. Exiting turn four Elliot dived onto the apron as Yarborough continued. At unabated speed the T-Bird kept spewing out the fluid, obscuring the view for the rest of the field. Elliot took the yellow flag and retained his place at the front.
At the restart Elliot took off and controlled the pace. It appeared to be comfortable from the outside. In the pits the same observation could not be made. The team were on tenterhooks as Elliot calmly completed circuit after circuit. Inside the last ten laps the crowd were as one, standing and hollering support, drowning out the noise from a full field of rattling V8s.
Elliot took the chequered flag and the place erupted. The Melling crew and the Elliot family were ecstatic. Elliot had achieved the unexpected, he’d took the million. If truth be told, RJ Reynolds had banked on the feat being unachievable. Thanks to their prize fund, “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was now a new unit of American currency. He was now the “Million Dollar Bill.”
The win, and the prize didn’t quite hit Elliot straight away. He was whisked off into a convertible to ride around for a lap of honour. When he finally got back to the winners circle he was fairly relaxed and sanguine about the day, he said: “I tell you what, I drove my tail off all day long, and the car just wasn’t right and things just kept happening and it worked out my day.”
The ratio was still half of the races to Elliot and the Melling crew. Out of the 20 races he’d won 10. He also had a healthy, and possibly unassailable 206 point lead in the championship it seemed, that was about to nosedive.
The return fixture at Richmond got off to a promising start for Elliot. Fifth in qualifying wasn’t a bad effort for a short-track. Waltrip was down in 22nd. No driver dominated the day. But the last quarter was about Waltrip and Terry Labonte. Darrell took the lead with five laps to go and picked up his second win of the year. Elliot finished a couple of laps down in 12th place.
At Dover Elliot was ready to re balance the points standings. Another pole started the weekend off well, in the race he finished 70 laps down on winner Harry Gant. Waltrip chased the #33 car to the flag but ran his tank dry on the last lap, crawling across the line in second and in the process reduced the points lead of Elliot down to 86. With two short tracks coming up the lead in the title chase looked like it was firing up.
The ten wins of Elliot didn’t really mean so much compared to the two of Waltrip as they headed off to Martinsville and North Wilksboro.
At Matinsville Waltrip finished second, Elliot was 17th. In North Wilksboro, where Waltrip had won six of the previous nine races, he could only manage 14th. Elliot suffered a transmission failure and was classified in 30th. In the matter of a month the million dollar win and the 206 point lead was forgotten history. Waltrip had achieved the unthinkable. With four races left he was now leading the Winston Cup championship by 30 points.
Three of those remaining races were on fast ovals where Elliot had spent the year dominating. The final race was at the Riverside road track where both drivers had won in the past. Even if Elliot was on form, Waltrip could pull it off by staying close to his adversary.
Charlotte was the last win for Cale Yarborough. The #28 car had been a part-time entry in 1985 but had featured in most of the significant races in the title battle. Elliot dominated in terms of laps led with 107 but despite harrying Yarborough over the last couple of laps, couldn’t bring it to the top rung. Waltrip finished two places behind Elliot in fourth, he led a single lap which earned five bonus points and minimised the effect of Elliot being ahead. With three races to go Waltrip still led, but only by 20 points.
Waltrip needed to deliver at Rockingham, he needed to keep Elliot at bay and strike a crucial blow. In the race it was Richard Petty who struck the blow, damaging Elliot’s car under caution. It may have been enough to take the edge off his performance. He managed a single lap in the lead to pick up bonus points in the fourth placed finish like Waltrip a fortnight before. On the other side Waltrip led for 73 laps, including the last one, fending off Ron Bouchard to take his third win of the year and up his points advantage to 35 with two races to go.
It was back home to Georgia for the Melling team. Atlanta was a bowl filled with Bill Elliot fans. It was a pressure cooker environment where the crowd needed Elliot to deliver the goods. He did not disappoint. A convincing win ahead of Cale Yarborough was exactly what the doctor had ordered. The only biteback was the fact that Waltrip led two laps, and in his intangible and customary style carried his car to third place. With one race in the championship to go the gap was 20 points in favour of Waltrip.
Was it really a case that Waltrip, who was over 200 points back from Elliot at the beginning of September, could be about to take his third Winston Cup title? With only three wins to the 11 of Elliot?
Before heading to California for the showdown Waltrip headed to Daytona to run a modified car with a 1986 rear end. It was the first solid evidence that the rumours of his setting up solo were not going to come to fruition. Even though all parties concerned had denied that he was going to leave, rumours kept circulating that moves had been made for crew to join Waltrip for a new venture. It was, at this point, unfounded. It would be another six years before DW had his own team, and that came after a stint with Hendrick. It did mean that the pressures around the repeated rumours of the move were out of the way allowing him to focus on the final title tilt.
The Riverside roadcourse looked old and worn out. It was enjoying a stay of execution. For a number of years it was going to be closed and redeveloped, but NASCAR had a couple of years left with the venue. What was worrying for those who worked at the circuit was the fact that NASCAR had signed a contract and added the Watkins Glen roadcourse to the calendar for 1986. The media was also reporting that the mighty Elkhart Lake was vying for a date. Having severed its ties with CART it needed a big race to replace IndyCar. In mid-November 1985 only one roadcourse was on the minds of Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliot, and that was Riverside.
Waltrip put himself third on the grid, directly in front of fifth placed Elliot. It was a simple task really, finish in front of Bill, and lead a lap for good measure. Realistically this was all he needed to do. The rest of the field were not going to give them an easy time of it. Tim Richmond, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Allison and pole man Terry Labonte were not going to roll over and relinquish positions just because a battle for the title was going on around them.
The title was decided on lap six. The showdown and rivalry petered out as Rudd battled, and defeated, Labonte for the win. A broken gear linkage on the Melling Ford sent Elliot into the pits on lap six. It took 25 minutes to repair the car before he was sent back out their only hope being that Waltrip would suffer a problems and finish a few places back from them. The title chase was over. Elliot came home in 31st place, 23 laps behind the winner. Waltrip had a trouble free run to seventh to take his, and Junior Johnson’s, final titles.
The overriding feeling for so many fans is that Bill Elliot and Melling threw away the 1985 title. Because of those 11 wins it appears that he should have walked it. What is often ignored is the fact that Waltrip was able to stay in decent points paying positions all year. A cursory glance at his stats see 15 top five finishes in addition to his three wins. Only three results saw him outside of the top 20.
Elliot may have won 11 races, but only he only scored another five top five finishes. The first six races of the year yielded three wins, an 11th place and two outside of the top 20. After taking the Winston Million he placed 12th, 20th, 17th and 30th in four races. In eight races on the half-mile circuits he only gained one top five. It would take another three years for him to win at Bristol in 1988, his second came at Richmond in 1992, after it had been lengthened to a three quarter mile circuit.
Urban legend has it that Melling were dominant on the big tracks because they cheated. Trick engines and a 7/8 sized car are the usual complaints. It wasn’t a view shared by their rivals. Bobby Allison referred to the skills of Ernie Elliot and his engine building when he said: ‘”Not only are the other competitors tearing their hair out, but so are the inspectors. Whatever he’s doing, they haven’t the slightest idea.”
Ernie was awarded the inaugural “Engine Builder of the Year” award for his work, younger brother Bill was voted “Most Popular Driver” for a second time in a row. Despite not taking the championship, Bill wasn’t bitter. The philosophical side of him came out: “I’ve had a good year and finishing second don’t overshadow anything by no means.”
Waltrip wasn’t so happy about the way he’d won the title, he said: “Only winning three races was not the way I wanted to win the championship.” He was a critic of the points system insofar as it didn’t reward the winning driver enough. Bill France was not having it though: “The points system stays as it is, it works.” He pointed out that the title had gone down to the wire for seven years in a row, which is exactly what NASCAR wanted.
Elliot was in favour of the points system, he knew that the team would need to work on its overall performance. They’d shown that being on top in one discipline wasn’t enough. But the other teams knew they had their work cut out to emulate them.
The one man who knew what the reality of the situation was was Waltrip himself. When asked about the superior performance on the fast tracks, he commented: “There’s a whole lot of dust churning up behind him, but nobody catches him unless it breaks.”