Neil Bonnett would have been 70 years old today. We take a look back at his NASCAR premier series career.
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Talladega RELATED: Complete stats, race results for Talladega BESSEMER, Ala. -- In the beginning, there was Bobby and Donnie and Red. They were the Alabama Gang. Bobby Allison. Donnie Allison. And Charles "Red" Farmer. Three racers from South Florida who, as the 1950s ended and the '60s began, picked up stakes and relocated to little-known Hueytown, Alabama, in search of bigger race purses and infinitely more opportunities. Across much of the southeastern United States, local tracks were prime entertainment for folks in towns and cities such as Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville. And a driver with good equipment, enough talent, and a bit of luck, could make anywhere from two to three shows a week. You don't win bigger purses, of course, unless you run exceptionally well but that was never a problem for the Allisons or Farmer. In fact, they won so often on the region’s short tracks that other drivers quickly began to lament their arrival. It's a hard thing to pin down exactly when the Alabama Gang moniker first surfaced, and there are numerous versions of the story. But a similar thread runs through each -- whenever and wherever the trio arrived, the quality of the competition increased dramatically. "It was years before I heard the story behind it," former crew chief Larry McReynolds said. "I guess they kind of all traveled together in a caravan and would go to these different short tracks. They went somewhere, I don’t even remember where it was, and they all … Bobby, Donnie, Red, I think even Neil ( Bonnett ) -- three or four of them pulled in and somebody said, 'Well hell, here comes that damn Alabama Gang.' It just stuck and they kind of picked it up and ran with it." Bonnett , the former pipefitter who grew up in the area, joined the fold in the early '70s, and got his break only after working as a volunteer at the Allison's race shop in Hueytown. "I told him I didn't have money to pay him but what could I do for him," Bobby Allison said of Bonnett . "He said, 'let me drive one of your short track cars in a race or two.' I said, 'Tomorrow night is the night.'" Allison, whose NASCAR career was picking up steam, continued to compete in as many local shows as his schedule would allow. And as luck would have it, he was scheduled to run in two races in two different states the following night. "I promised I would race at Maryville, Tennessee, and I was committed to race at a short track in Virginia," Allison said. "So I gave him the car for Maryville and I went north the other direction." According to Allison, Bonnett won his race, at Smoky Mountain Raceway, "and that’s really when he became a member of the Alabama Gang. "He ran the car for me 64 times over the following year and won 61 of those races on short tracks all around Alabama," Allison said. Eventually they all competed at NASCAR's top level, what's known today as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, with varying degrees of success. Bobby Allison's star rose the highest, reaching its zenith when he won the series' championship in 1983 and culminating with 84 career wins and a much-deserved place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. A crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988 nearly took his life, and ended Allison's racing career. Donnie, every bit as successful in those early years, won 10 times as a NASCAR regular while often running a limited schedule. Injuries suffered in a hard crash at Charlotte in 1981 eventually ended his career behind the wheel as well, seeing him make just 13 more starts over the course of seven years. At 84, Farmer is the only one of the original Alabama Gang members still competing, and can often be found racing at nearby Talladega Short Track. Bonnett had 18 career wins when he was injured in a crash at Darlington Raceway in 1990. After a brief but successful stint in the television booth, he returned to competition in 1994 only to die when his car hit the wall at Daytona during practice for that season's Daytona 500. • • • It’s a gray, rainy day and the sounds of afternoon traffic rolling across interstate can be heard here -- the thump-thump-thump of 18-wheelers and the hum of cars and pickups and SUVs headed northeast toward Birmingham or southwest toward Tuscaloosa. The rain comes and goes but the traffic is constant, quickly moving past Bessemer and nearby Hueytown and yes, here at Highland Memorial Gardens too. Back in the corner of the cemetery, midway across the section named "Garden of Everlasting Life," is the plaque, centered on a piece of granite. Coins rest atop the marker. Two dimes, a nickel and three pennies here, a quarter and three pennies there. Twenty-eight cents. Always 28 cents. Twenty-eight, the car number of David Carl "Davey" Allison. Nearby, although not in the same section, is the grave of Davey's younger brother Clifford. Another Allison, another second-generation member of the Alabama Gang. Another racer who could seemingly outrun everything except fate. • • • Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Supespeedway (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a homecoming for McReynolds, a native of Birmingham. As a youngster, McReynolds would often walk to nearby Birmingham International Raceway with his aunt and her husband to watch the weekly shows. Later, he convinced his father to take him to Talladega, to the "big track." McReynolds won 23 times as a crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, including 11 times with Davey Allison. One of those, in 1992, came just down the road at Talladega. "Even though I’ve been gone 37 years it’s still my home track," said McReynolds, now an analyst for NASCAR on FOX. "And I guess to finally win there as a crew chief with Davey in '92 -- Davey would start talking about Talladega a month out. He loved that place and obviously had a huge fan following there. And of course he won there three times; he won his first race there in '87 as a rookie. RELATED: Recalling Allison's first win at Talladega "But it was pretty special to be able to go to Victory Lane. … Almost 20 years earlier, I'm sitting in the grandstands with my dad and I asked if we could sit somewhere where I could see the garage area on race morning, and where I could see the pits, that's what I really wanted to see because that's what intrigued me. To know 18-19 years later I actually was the crew chief of the car that won the race and of all people to do it with, Davey Allison, and I guess that's what was even much cooler, 20 years after that, for my son Brandon, who is Davey's godson, to win the ARCA race there. "So to know what all happened in that 40-year span, almost in 20-year increments, is pretty unbelievable." • • • Hueytown once hummed with racing activity, home to the Allisons and Farmer and Bonnett and their families and extended families and when they won, the people of Hueytown won, too. Today? Today the clouds hang low and the rain starts and stops and out on the interstate the traffic is constant. Shops and storefronts have that slightly-used look, some no doubt repurposed for yet another shot at one business venture or another. There are roads and highways in the area bearing their names but the Alabama Gang is more memory than reality around here these days. Members of the next generation of the Alabama Gang, either by birthright or birthplace, have come and gone. Davey Allison, winner of 19 races and a runner-up finish to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500, died from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega just five years later. He was 32. Clifford, two years younger, was killed when he crashed during practice in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway. Hut Stricklin and Mickey Gibbs and David Bonnett . Guys that had the ties but not the good fortune. • • • In the beginning, there was Bobby, Donnie and Red. They were, and will always will be known, as the Alabama Gang. &amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;gt;
RELATED: More on the Hall of Fame " Fan Appreciation Day CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For just the third time since the NASCAR Hall of Fame first opened its doors in 2010, race fans will see a new Glory Road exhibit encircling the Great Hall in the museum's main level. Glory Road "ICONS" features 18 cars representing some of NASCAR's most recognizable vehicles as well as its legendary drivers. The exhibit will officially open to the public Jan. 7. Friday, Hall officials held an unveiling for members of the media and various local dignitaries. Seventeen of the vehicles were on display when the hour-long event got underway. The wraps on the 18th, the No. 28 Ford Thunderbird piloted by Davey Allison for Ranier-Lundy Racing, were removed during the program. Among those in attendance for the unveiling were Allison's father, Bobby Allison, the 1983 series champion and winner of 84 races, Davey's son Robbie Allison, Joey Knuckles (Allison's crew chief for 19 races in 1987), Larry McReynolds (Allison's crew chief at Robert Yates Racing from '91-93) and Lorin Ranier, son of team owner Harry Ranier. "I notice in this general area Alabama is represented really well," Robbie Allison said, noting his father's car sits between those of his grandfather and fellow Alabama Gang driver Neil Bonnett . "We're doing pretty well I think. "When I look at this car, one thing that stands out is I always see the snippet online of him driving down pit road at Talladega and the whole crew is on top of the car. ... I see it all the time. All the good times that he and his team shared and our family was able to share through racing." Davey Allison scored his first NASCAR win in the top series in '87 at Talladega Superspeedway . He would add 18 more victories, including two more at the 2.66-mile Talladega track, before his death in 1993. Bobby Allison's racing career had ended in 1988 when his Buick slammed into the wall and was then struck by another race car on the first lap of a race at Pocono Raceway . Clifford Allison, Davey's brother, was killed in a crash during practice in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway . "Something that my granddad says to me all the time is that racing has taken a lot away from us but it's also given us an awful lot at the same time,” Robbie Allison said. "There are so many good memories ... "The words that everybody that knew (my dad) on and off the track, determination, hard work, obsession even, always willing to put in that extra effort to be better every day. ... He was definitely as good of a father as he was a racer.” McReynolds, now a NASCAR on FOX analyst, said Allison "actually made my job pretty easy because … I think a lot of it was the way Bobby brought him up through the racing ranks he knew what was going on with that race car and he had a pretty good idea what we needed to do to make it better. ... "He obviously did a phenomenal job in that race car but he did a really unbelievable job outside the race car. He loved his race fans." The 18 cars featured on the new Glory Road "ICONS" exhibit span the history of NASCAR, from the 1952 Hudson Hornet driven by Marshall Teague -- a dominant combination in the sport's formative years -- to the 2015 Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota Camry that carried Kyle Busch to the series championship. Other entries in the exhibit include: • 1957 Ford Fairlane driven by Fireball Roberts • 1964 Plymouth Belvedere of Richard Petty • 1966 Ford Galaxie owned and driven by Wendell Scott • 1966 Dodge Charger fielded by Cotton Owens and driven by David Pearson • 1939 Chevrolet Coupe piloted by Richie Evans in 1970-71 • 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Darrell Waltrip • 1978 Ford Thunderbird driven by Bobby Allison • 1982 Oldsmobile Omega driven by Sam Ard • 1989 Ford Thunderbird driven by Neil Bonnett • 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by Harry Gant • 1992 Ford Thunderbird driven by Bill Elliott • 1995 Chevrolet Silverado driven by Mike Skinner • 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Dale Earnhardt • 2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Jeff Gordon • 2013 Chevrolet SS driven by Jimmie Johnson Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, said his group began with a notebook of "100 to 120 cars" that had to be trimmed considerably before beginning the process of selecting and obtaining the final 18. "If I handed you that notebook you would probably agree that 80-90 are iconic cars," Kelley said. "There are others that are noteworthy of acknowledging at some point in time, but would it pass the sticker test ... would you say 'yeah that's iconic?' " As with previous Glory Road exhibits, the "ICONS" exhibit will remain on display for three years. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
RELATED: See Dale Jr.'s day at Talladega Six-time Talladega Superspeedway winner Dale Earnhardt Jr . visited one of his favorite tracks Thursday for an action-packed day of greeting fans, mingling with the Alabama Gang, assisting the track with its landscaping duties and watching his father's No. 2 Chevrolet take a lap around the superspeedway. The Hendrick Motorsports wheelman, sidelined for the rest of the season by concussion-like symptoms, was welcomed by Alabama Gang members Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and short-track legend Red Farmer as an honorary member of the group. The Alabama Gang, with deep roots in stock-car racing's early days, was the nickname earned by a group of notable NASCAR drivers -- the Allisons, Neil Bonnett , and Farmer among them -- with ties to the state. Talladega's back straightaway was named "The Alabama Gang Superstretch" in their honor in the spring of 2014. Although Dale Earnhardt was not a part of the group, he remained great friends with the drivers -- especially Bonnett , a fellow outdoorsman. The group paid tribute to the first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee as Donnie Allison wheeled Earnhardt's famous No. 2 Monte Carlo around the 2.66-mile track. See glimpses from Dale Jr.'s day. We have a VERY special guest with us today surprising some awesome fans! Welcome back to 'Dega, @DaleJr ! pic.twitter.com/ibtEQnnAJ6 — TalladegaSuperspdwy (@TalladegaSuperS) September 29, 2016 . @DaleJr doing some track landscaping and surprising fans at @TalladegaSuperS . #NW88JR pic.twitter.com/ptrIfuXW8y — Nationwide 88 (@nationwide88) September 29, 2016 We have some REALLY cool stuff coming up with @DaleJr and the famed #AlabamaGang ! Keep an eye on Periscope & Facebook Live! pic.twitter.com/fT05pKOgrN — TalladegaSuperspdwy (@TalladegaSuperS) September 29, 2016 Donnie, Bobby and Red welcome @DaleJr as an OFFICIAL Honorary Member of the #AlabamaGang ! pic.twitter.com/JjCPAt99FJ — TalladegaSuperspdwy (@TalladegaSuperS) September 29, 2016 Dale Sr.'s No. 2 Monte Carlo rides again with Donnie Allison at the wheel! #AlabamaGang https://t.co/HeBNAtQWh8 — TalladegaSuperspdwy (@TalladegaSuperS) September 29, 2016 Good times today @TalladegaSuperS promoting the race with the Alabama Gang. Tickets are on sale for the race on October 23rd. pic.twitter.com/vm6OZFTslx — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) September 29, 2016 I remember this old thing. @TalladegaSuperS Hall of Fame. The carpet is teal, I kid you not. Great choice pops. pic.twitter.com/UMn4RAe34L — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) September 29, 2016 How cool to rename the MRN booth @TalladegaSuperS in honor of Barney Hall! pic.twitter.com/7u24pIDUnM — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) September 29, 2016 </p>
RELATED: Meet Denny Hamlin's spotter, Chris Lambert Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spotters. Jason Hedlesky, Spotter for Carl Edwards , No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota How and when did you get started as a spotter? I grew up (in Clinton, Michigan) and my dad brought me to Michigan Speedway for the first time when I was 8 years old. Before that, I knew I wanted to be a race car driver. When he brought me here … I walked up to the fence at the start/finish line and I want to say it was Neil Bonnett in the Wood Brothers car, he just came flying by me. I stepped back about five feet, it scared me at first, but it was the most awesome thing in the world. That just confirmed it. I stayed focused on my goals and tried to eventually make it as a driver. I succeeded to some extent -- getting my start with Mr. (Junie) Donlavey and had raced locally at Flat Rock and Toledo. Getting my start with Mr. Donlavey in 1998, I drove for him, did a little bit of everything, team manager and spotted for the team as well. In '04, Mr. Donlavey was retiring and I wanted to keep driving. I didn't really want another management job or a real job. I wanted to concentrate on driving. Carl needed a spotter. He was driving a truck for Jack (Roush, team owner) and I started spotting for him. We just became ... he's like one of my brothers. What, if any, other duties do you have with the team? That's it. For the last 13 years with Carl, I've just been the spotter. At Roush I did some test driving, a little bit. I filled in for him on the XFINITY side in I want to say '08. I did a couple of practice sessions when he was off with the Cup car. Do you spot only in Sprint Cup or other series as well? I work with Matt Crafton in the Truck Series. I've been with him probably five years now. We've won the two championships together. I've got a great relationship with him as well; he's a great friend of mine. It's just a great team to work with. Junior Joiner, the crew chief, Duke (Thorson, team owner), they're awesome. As much as this is home with Carl and everything else and being with them for 13 years, I feel the same way over there at ThorSport. How long have you been working with Carl? Since 2004 with Carl, I think that was his second year in Trucks, and then that year he started (at Michigan) in the Cup car, the '99 car. There was a timeframe when Bobby Hudson would come in just for Sunday only and do the races with Carl because he was already doing that 99 car. So I would do the Truck full-time and the Cup practice. Bobby would be here just to do the Sunday stuff. Then it gradually evolved into me doing everything Carl did. We ran seven straight years of XFINTY Series and Sprint Cup full-time. Do you remember the first race you worked as spotter? It goes way back to Toledo Speedway. I helped a guy with a Super Late Model. Toledo is a half-mile race track with a quarter-mile track on the inside. Chuck Roumell, I grew up working on his cars. He gave me a shot to help with the race cars and his brother was spotting. ... For some reason, one 100-lap Iceman feature at Toledo, he couldn't do it, so they just threw the radio at me. At that time, you'd stand on top of the tool box and just spin around in a circle; you really didn't do the inside/outside type of stuff that we do today. You'd let them know if there was a wreck; you'd give them information but that was about it. I think it might have been about '97. Chuck ran some ARCA races at Michigan and places like that and I spotted for him there. What is the most bizarre thing you've ever seen on the spotters' stand? I've been doing it now almost 20 years just in NASCAR, and every time you think you've seen it all ... something else crazy happens. ... There have been so many things, like Daytona when Juan Pablo Montoya broke that part and hit that jet dryer. That was crazy from our vantage point. We're watching the race track burn in Turn 3 and thinking we're never going to go back racing. The race track has to be destroyed. And we ended up going back to racing. I'd say the jet dryer thing and thankfully everyone was OK. What has been your most memorable experience as a spotter? We've had a lot with Carl. He's such a special driver. ... It stunk how it turned out, but one of the coolest things we were a part of was that championship run at Homestead with Tony (Stewart). That was a heck of a race. You just saw two spectacular race car drivers and they were right on the edge. They were an inch from the wall down there. I talked to Carl afterward; obviously we were all so disappointed. We thought that was our championship. To this day we still think we should have won that championship. But Tony just got us. I called Carl after that and said I was worried about him scraping the wall. He said, "I was never going to hit the wall; I knew I couldn't." But he was running a half-inch from it. Me driving and realizing how hard that is to do that at his speed, that's why those guys are the best. You realize that after you watch guys like him and Tony. To be a part of that, to watch the skill they had -- those guys were running as hard as any human being could ever drive a race car. ... That was pretty cool. ... That thing there was just a spectacular race, they put on a spectacular show. The cream rose to the top. What is the most difficult part of your job? As much as we like traveling, I think the toughest part is being away from my wife and kids. Getting through all the practices and trying to stay focused. The races are fun, that's what you're here for. Staying focused all day up on the spotters' stand ... when you've got Truck and XFINITY and Cup. That part is tough, but the travel, all the long days and being away from your family. Your favorite track to work and why? Michigan, of course, because it's home. But I love to spot a race at Bristol. Our vantage point, it's a half mile. You're looking down and you don't have to turn your head. You can see everything right there in front of you. And the action happens so quick. It's probably my favorite. I've enjoyed the racing at Michigan. It's a big, wide race track. ... I've enjoyed draft, the fact that you have to lift in the corners, the fact that a guy can still beat you down in the corners. What is one thing the average fan might not realize about your job or what it entails? Probably how difficult it can be. I think if I just took the average person up there ... they don't realize maybe sometimes how little you can see at some of these places. We have great, clear vantage points, but you're still a long way away. You're listening to NASCAR on one channel, you have the crew chief on another channel and you're talking to your driver. There's a lot going on. ... Just the ability to stay focused. It's not easy or Talladega or Daytona or (Michigan); They're three- and four-wide and you're looking through binoculars to make sure you're as precise as possible. Then wrecks are happening in front of that. ... They're kind of far away from you. If you do it for a season you just get used to it. ... I appreciate all the work all those guys do. It's not easy. Bristol is a fishbowl but there's a lot going on. So you have to keep your head in the game.
RELATED: Elliott will 'never forget' Earnhardt move The starting grid for the 1987 Winston All-Star Race looked a lot like an exhibit befitting the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This was The All-Star Race for the ages. Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott all competed. Greats such as Neil Bonnett , Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd, Buddy Baker, and Benny Parsons were on the 20-driver starting grid, too. A young Davey Allison and a new Daytona 500 winner Geoffrey Bodine lined up alongside these iconic names. The fast and famed Tim Richmond was on the grid, too, in what was his final season of NASCAR competition. And don't forget about Kyle Petty, Bobby Hillin Jr. and Greg Sacks. The only driver on that famed All-Star lineup still NASCAR racing today is Morgan Shepherd, who drove a car fielded by drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein -- and his seventh-place finish that day in his first All-Star Race remains his best showing. That starting lineup was a true convergence of NASCAR's best -- sentimental favorites, crusty veterans, future Hall of Famers and young stars out to make their big names. It had personality. It had top-line credentials. In only its third running, the 1987 race showed exactly the pizzazz that would help forge the All-Star Race into the can't-miss annual event that will be on full display Saturday in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway . For all its historical allure, amazingly in that famed 1987 race only four drivers even led a lap -- the winner Earnhardt (10), the day's dominant driver Elliott (121), Bodine (3) and Kyle Petty (1). The great seven-time Cup champ Richard Petty crashed with the late superstar Neil Bonnett on Lap 66. As dominant and successful as Petty was, it's easy to forget he never won an All-Star Race. Among the most memorable aspects of this race will undoubtedly be the day's winner Earnhardt's "Pass in the Grass" of Elliott. It wasn't actually a pass at all, but Earnhardt maneuvering to hold onto his late race lead over Elliott in the day's most dominant car. It was the first of three All-Star wins for Earnhardt. And the gritty, hard-nosed final laps racing launched this -- then still young -- event into a bona fide can't-miss rite of spring. The above photo itself has become quite a piece of NASCAR lore. When this group of 20 drivers came together for this indelible image, these are the numbers they would leave behind: 812 premier series victories, 26 premier series championships, 11 All-Star Race wins ... and one urban legend.
RELATED: Paint schemes, then and now DARLINGTON, S.C. -- What year was it, 1985? The season Bill Elliott captured the Winston Million bonus the very first season it was put up for grabs by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds? Ol' Bill, who would finish the season with an amazing 11 victories but lose the championship battle to Darrell Waltrip. Recollections of Elliott smiling broadly as "Million Dollar Bills" floated through the air in Victory Lane. That was probably it, the first time I covered a NASCAR premier series race at Darlington Raceway . The backstretch today was the frontstretch then, the big red press box and suites sitting there just outside Turn 1. It provided a grand view, possibly one of the best of any stops on the circuit. Watching the field roar out of the fourth turn, so incredibly close to the wall. Then flying down the frontstretch, hammer down and into Turn 1 to start the process all over again. Just sitting there. Soaking it all in. Overlooking history in the making. More than three decades. Time does fly, I suppose. The track's hugely popular throwback program, now in its second season, rekindles a lot of racing memories. Paint schemes that we haven't seen in years suddenly re-appear, roll out of the garage and in a sense, roll back the calendar. But then again the memories always stir a bit when it comes to Darlington. No throwback program is necessary. Maybe it's because the track is an honest-to-goodness landmark, cut out of the sandy soil by Harold Brasington and opened for business in 1950. It was NASCAR's first paved oval of more than 1 mile in length. Brasington had a vision and wasn't shy about pursuing it. But more than that he was also a kind and caring soul to all of us and I never make the trek down here for a race without thinking about him. The action on the track? Yeah, that stands out, too. But it wasn't always the kind of things you hoped to be writing about -- hard crashes and injuries could, and did, happen other places as well but a couple that occurred here haven't been forgotten. Neil Bonnett's crash in the spring race of 1990 is one of them. The extremely personable Bonnett was one of 10 drivers collected in the Turn 4 incident during that year's spring race. Briefly knocked unconscious, Bonnett was eventually transferred to the local hospital and hours later it was reported that he was suffering from amnesia. More than a decade later, it was Steve Park. The Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver was competing in a Busch (now XFINITY ) Series event when, under caution, his Chevrolet suddenly veered left and into the path of Larry Foyt. The impact was tremendous to have happened under caution. But the sadness of such instances doesn't completely overshadow the good times. Jeff Gordon 's Winston Million victory in 1997, the final year of that format, was the perfect bookend to that program's 13-year run. His battle with Jeff Burton in the closing laps of that race was as memorable as any that have unfolded on the 1.366-mile track. Speaking of Burton, there are recollections of his 1999 Darlington sweep in a pair of rain-shortened races here; toss in Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch bringing the fans to their feet with an absolutely amazing finish in 2003; and Regan Smith rising up with the then-small Furniture Row Racing operation to slay the field, and Carl Edwards in 2011. This year's Bojangles' Southern 500 , scheduled to get underway Sunday (6 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the 67th running of the legendary classic. I've seen some of the cars and heard many of the stories from several of the men who were there when the legend of Darlington began. For a lot of others, I've been there to witness it firsthand. It's been worth every minute of it.
Editor's note: This week we're looking back at the 1987 Winston All-Star Race, one of the most historic races in NASCAR history. RELATED: The 1987 Winston: Where Are They Now? Nearly 30 years later NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott still says he has never been more frustrated in a race car than he was with the ending of the 1987 running of The Winston All-Star Race. He led a dominating 121 of the 135 laps but came out on the wrong end of a hard-nosed door-to-door battle for the win with the "Intimidator" Dale Earnhardt in the final 10-lap segment. The close-quarter, late-lap racing in The Winston between the season's top two championship contenders famously resulted in Earnhardt's "pass in the grass" -- even though in reality it was much closer to a maintain-in-the-terrain, but it still became racing lore. The race itself is a legitimately legendary story starring Elliott and Earnhardt with perhaps the most famous NASCAR driver lineups of all-time essentially playing supporting roles. Hall of Famers such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip raced that day, joining many of the sport's all-time most popular racers such as Neil Bonnett , Geoffrey Bodine and Tim Richmond. As NASCAR prepares for the modern-day version of this event, the Sprint All-Star Race this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway , it's a good stock-car history lesson to relive the 1987 event. Many consider this the most famous All-Star running -- a hard-nosed, win-at-all-costs race that raised the sport's profile and its expectations. In particular, the late-lap duel between Elliott and Earnhardt is considered required folklore for NASCAR fans, as it was the first instance of the All-Star Race having a 10-lap shootout to the finish. Even today Elliott is still miffed about his missed opportunity, he told NASCAR.com "That was probably the maddest I've ever been, but you just have to deal with it and go on,’’ said Elliott, who after being passed by Earnhardt had to pit in the waning laps to change out a flat tire, ultimately finishing 14th.
McReynolds remembers driver on anniversary of his passing RELATED: High 5: Remembering Davey Allison As New Hampshire Motor Speedway celebrates its 25th anniversary, FOX NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds, a guest on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, remembered another Magic Mile milestone: the first premier series race at the track, which was the last event for Davey Allison before a helicopter accident claimed his life. After falling 63 points shy of the 1992 NASCAR championship, Allison's No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford got off to a slow start, according to McReynolds, who served as its crew chief. "I think we kind of got lazy between the '92 and the '93 season because we ran so well in 1992," McReynolds said. "We didn't work to make ourselves better, and we were struggling when '93 started." The Slick 50 300 at a new New England venue offered an opportunity for the team to turn the corner, and it gave the team reason to be optimistic for the inaugural premier series race. "We finally built a brand new car and went to Loudon, and we were leading that race with 30 laps to go and we had a car that was good on the long run," McReynolds said. "A caution comes out for debris with 30 laps to go. We were in a bit of a box. We had to pit so we pitted, and we ended up finishing third to Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin ." It was the team's first top-five finish in a month and sixth in the first 16 races of the season. An upbeat Allison did something on the way home that surprised his crew chief and fellow Alabama native as the No. 28 team headed to Charlotte and then on to Allison's home in Hueytown, Alabama. "Davey did something that night that I had never seen him do," McReynolds said. "He always flew his own plane. I think it's how he kind of took out his anxiety of the day, but he told his pilot and his dad, Bobby, 'You guys fly the airplane. I'm going to sit in the back with the guys.' "…we sat back there and he was so excited and happy because I think like he felt like we finally had hit on something that we had been missing most of 1993. He told me when we landed in Charlotte, 'You won't be able to get in touch with me tomorrow. I think I'm going to fly up to Talladega to watch David Bonnett , Neil Bonnett's son, test a car.' "I said, 'No problem. I'll call you on Tuesday.' "Well, unfortunately, I never got to make that call because the next day was when he was killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega." Later that season, Ernie Irvan took over the No. 28 ride, driving the car through the first 20 races of the 1994 season before a crash at Michigan International Speedway sidelined him for for more than a year. When Irvan returned to the No. 28 car in 1996, McReynolds was his crew chief, and that July, Irvan and McReynolds went to Victory Lane at Loudon, New Hampshire, for an emotional celebration in honor of the driver's comeback and to commemorate the three-year anniversary of Allison's passing. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
RELATED: Darlington throwback paint schemes Darlington's throwback theme for Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 already is a hit with racers and fans alike, bringing out the creativity in the industry with special paint schemes and providing opportunities to honor great racers who have gone before. But what if along with those throwback paint schemes, like Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s Valvoline No. 88 nod to Cale Yarborough and Clint Bowyer 's No. 15 salute to recently passed Buddy Baker, we could actually bring back the NASCAR legends themselves for this one race. Who would you pick? Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman could fill the whole 43-car field with legendary race car drivers. He won seven premier series championships with Richard Petty and an eighth with Terry Labonte , competing against some of the most storied personalities in the sport. "Damn, I've seen 'em all. I don't know …" Inman said of trying to choose just one driver to place in a throwback ride. "Earnhardt Sr. was good there you know." Bowyer, too, wished Earnhardt Sr. could join the field at the 2015 Southern 500. "Obviously for me it would be Earnhardt for me because we lost him, you know. That's first and foremost. Anyone you ever lost is who you'd want to bring back." But Bowyer said bringing back the man with the most wins (47) and most poles (47) at Darlington, David Pearson, would be the ultimate measuring stick for today's Sprint Cup drivers. "Pearson … man, what a character and just a genuine badass and an aggressive and successful racer. Anytime you have someone who's successful in the sport you make a living in, you want to be able to see what he had, what he's made of and see how you stack up." Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing , fondly remembers those days with Pearson driving the No. 21 Purolator Mercury. Pearson drove for the Woods Brothers from 1972-79 and won seven times at "The Lady in Black" during that span with two runner-up finishes. "That was his place," Wood said of Pearson's dominance at the South Carolina track. "The hotter the better for David. He liked it HOT, so we'd have to run in the daytime for him." RELATED: Drivers, officials, fans pumped for throwback weekend Inman attributed some of Pearson's success at the track also called "Too Tough To Tame" to his ability to take care of his equipment. This was extra difficult, as Inman recalled, because the track promoter sometimes would put bear's grease on the track between Saturday's practice and Monday's race. Blue laws prevented NASCAR from running on Sundays in South Carolina then. "Pearson just had a knack for taking care of the car. He always had a good car too," Inman said. "At least most of the time. For Darlington we put bars under the fenders. You knew you were gonna hit the wall, so we just put bars in and just bolted them to the right side. But the guard rail wasn't smooth like it is now. And they'll wear the sides out this time with the low downforce package." Aside from the drivers who racked up at the track, including Richard Petty and Buck Baker, Inman said Parnelli Jones' performance at Darlington had lasting impact on the racing there. "Parnelli Jones came out here in maybe 1956 or 57 was the first one to really use the high bank to what it is now. I remember him just sliding up to the fence. He didn't finish, of course." Jones crashed at Darlington in both 1956 and 1957. He finished 50th in a field of 70 cars in 1956 in the No. 1 Torrance Motors Ford and 34th in the No. 11 Ford owned by Oscar Maples in 1957. In 1958, Jones did finish the Southern 500 running, coming in 18th in a field of 48 cars during his last race there. The list of great performances at Darlington is nothing short of epic. Just the list of winners sends any racing fan on a long ride down memory lane: Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Allison, Fonty Flock, Neil Bonnett , Benny Parsons, Harry Gant. How would they stack up against Jeff Gordon , the active driver with the most wins at Darlington (seven)? "Herb Thomas and Buck Baker were both really good," Inman added to the list. "But Herb had it as good as anyone in those old Hudson Hornets that Marshall Teague built, and I think he won in a Chevrolet, too." Now that would be an entirely different kind of throwback idea. Run at Darlington again in restored Chevrolets, Fords, Hornets, Plymouths, Pontiacs and Dodges.