In the late 1980′s it was one of NASCAR’s hottest rivalries. If Bill Elliott was lightning, with his record speeds, then Dale Earnhardt was thunder, by 1987, having already engaged in some famous contact with the likes of Tim Richmond and Darrell Waltrip. Earnhardt was in pursuit of what would be his third Winston Cup championship, and though Elliott hadn’t yet won a title, he had won 17 races and had finished in the top 5 in the season points four times.
Though each had come from humble Southern roots, they were so different in so many other ways. Before he finally withdrew his name for consideration earlier this decade, Elliott had been voted NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” 16 times! Earnhardt was a bit more of a polarizing figure whom you either loved or hated.
Elliott cut his teeth in racing surrounded and supported by his brothers and father. By the time Earnhardt hit the national racing scene, his father had already crossed life’s finish line.
Elliott made his Cup racing debut at 20, and though his early years weren’t easy, his road wasn’t as filled with potholes as his rival. Earnhardt debuted at age 24, but never really got his career off and running until he was closer to 30, when he hooked up with owner Rod Osterlund make “Rookie of the Year” in 1979.
In the third running of “The Winston”, then the monicker of NASCAR’s all-star race the two literally clashed to provide not only one the all-star races classic battles, but one NASCAR’s most memorable moments.
After two relatively non-descript events in 1985 and 1986, NASCAR shook things up a bit. The race returned to Charlotte after a one year run in Atlanta, and instead of a 70 lap, one segment race, the event was broken up into 3 segments: a 75 lap first segment, a mandatory green flag pit stop, a 50 lap second segment, and then a 10 lap dash to complete the race.
The fun began at the start of the final segment. A quartet of Bill Elliott on the pole, Geoff Bodine on the outside, Kyle Petty (in the Wood Bros. #21) in 3rd and Earnhardt in 4th was leading the way.
The pace car was slow leaving the track , gumming up Elliott’s re-start. Elliott and Bodine would trade paint in Turns 1 and 2. Bodine’s #5 Chevy went into a spin, opening the door for the epic battle. “We were all trying to get to the same spot,” Elliott said.
Bodine pitted quickly pitted for new tires in preparation for the re-start. When asking who hit him to force the spin, owner Rick Hendrick told Bodine “It was Earnhardt.” Elliott says that Bodine had beaten him to the first turn and that when Bodine cut to the inside , it forced contact with the “3″ that had moved into third. Earnhardt was able to dive underneath Elliott and Bodine to dart into the lead.
The Intimidator led the field to re-start with Elliott in tow. As you look at the video, you can see Elliott move inside of Earnhardt in the turn. The Wrangler Chevy moves down, making momentary contact with Elliott with his left rear quarter panel as Earnhardt shuts the door on Elliott.
As you might well imagine, “Million Dollar” Bill had become quite irritated with his opponent. “Every time I tried to pass him, he’d cut me off right and left.” With seven laps to go, Elliott gets a run off of Earnhardt coming out of Turn Four. The two make nose-to- back contact. Earnhardt tries to cut off Elliott and the ensuing contact sends Earnhardt into the infield grass.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never tried to drive a car through grass at speeds in upwards of of triple digits. As everyone present watched in amazement, Earnhardt maintained control and emerged from the infield in control of the car and in control of the lead.
On the next lap, Elliott tries the outside and get his nose just ahead of Earnhardt, but the “3″ holds the lead. During the exchange, Terry Labonte gets in on the fun and moves inside to nose briefly ahead of Earnhardt but Texas Terry couldn’t clear.
Ultimately, Elliott gives way when a cut tire forces him to pit. While Earnhardt says he never touched the “9″, Elliott maintains it was contact from the “3″ the crumpled his fender and caused the cut tire.
Earnhardt sails on to victory, having held off the competition.
Still steaming from what he believes is misfortune brought on by the driver of the yellow and blue Chevy, Bodine decides slam Earnhardt on the cool down lap. Hendrick unsuccessfully tries to stop his driver yelling “No. It was Elliott. It was Bill Elliott.” Bodine quickly starts waving like he’s congratulating Earnhardt.
Not exactly known for fighting, Bill Elliott has reached a boiling point after several other incidents with Earnhardt throughout the season. He blocks Earnhardt exiting Turn One on the cool down lap. The move forced the winner to slam on the brakes., with smoke billowing from his tires. He also threw in a little love tap for good measure.
You kind of get the feeling that only Earnhardt’s passing in 2001 has dampened some of Elliott’s anger. He’ll be the first to tell you that the “pass in the grass” was really no pass at all. He further maintains the hype over the final dash was as much to blame for what happened in the melee.
It’s been said Elliott was so furious he swore he’d never wear Wrangler jeans again and he threw out the ones he had. He told the NASCAR brass- namely Dick Beaty and Bill France Jr.- that Earnhardt’s shenanigans cost his team $200,000. Not quite telling him to choke on it a la D.W. with Rusty Wallace, but still pretty strong emotions from a guy ordinarily wearing a big grin.
Earnhardt would win 11 races that year and his 3rd of 7 Cup titles. Second place? That belonged to Elliott, who won 6 races in 1987. “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” won his single championship in 1988- highlighting a very successful decade for the eventual winner of 44 races.
Here’s that YouTube video. It’s just 2 minutes and 26 seconds and hits the highlights of the finish. Click on the hyperlink here.