NASCAR's Greatest Moments

Part 2:  The Modern Era (1972-1989)

 by Adam Sewell
July 5, 2001

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Several fans have heard of the Modern Era of NASCAR, but few actually know what marks the beginning of it. Some guess that it began with a mechanical change to the cars, or that it began when Winston started sponsoring what is now the Winston Cup Series. 

Actually, the Modern Era began in 1972, and we are presently still in it. Following the previous season of 1971, NASCAR decided to cut back it's racing schedule and to only run the "major" events. The 1971 schedule, which ran from early January to the middle of December, contained 48 events, and several times, the teams raced during the middle part of the week. The 1972 schedule was reduced to 31 events, and NASCAR also stopped holding events in the middle of the week. Also, two other major changes occurred before the 1972 season. 

NASCAR adopted a points system that is very similar to the one still in use today. It rewarded the drivers more for consistency, rather than rewarding those! that won the most races, and has resulted in some incredible championship battles. The third major change, and possibly the most crucial, was that for the first time in history, Bill France, Sr. was not the President of NASCAR. Prior to 1972 season, France passed the helm to his son, Bill, Jr. Everyone was terrified that Bill, Sr. was no longer calling the shots. But now we can see that his son took the out of control sport that he organized, and made it into the sport it is today. 

1974 Firecracker 400    Petty vs. Pearson 

Daytona has been the home to some of NASCAR most memorable events, and the 1974 Firecracker 400 did not disappoint. Coming through the tri-oval to take the white flag, David Pearson led Richard Petty. As the two exited the tri-oval, Pearson let off the accelerator completely, and Petty went by thinking that Pearson had a problem. Petty built an enormous lead, but using the draft to catch back up, Pearson reestablished the lead coming off turn 4 and won the race. Later, David Pearson admitted that he did it on purpose so that Richard couldn't sling shot by him to win. 

1976 Daytona 500    Petty vs. Pearson Again!

David Pearson and his car that limped across the finish line.

Every sport has rivalries, and the Petty vs. Pearson rivalry is among the most popular in NASCAR history. The two drivers have finished 1-2 on more occasions than anyone would care to count, and Richard Petty and David Pearson are the only two drivers in history to break the 100 win mark. The final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500 is probably the most dramatic final lap in auto racing history. David Pearson took the lead from Richard Petty going down the back straightaway. Pearson drifted up in turn 3 allowing Petty to get below him. Petty got out ahead of Pearson coming off of turn 4, but drifted up and clipped Pearson. Pearson's car went spinning toward pit road while Petty's car was spinning toward the finish line. The banking of the tri-oval made Petty's car slide into the grass and stall, less than 100 yards from the checkered flag. His crew sprinted to the car to push it across the line, but Pearson managed to keep his car running an! d he limped across the line to win the race. 

1979 Daytona 500    Cale takes on the Allisons 

The 1979 "Great American Race" isn't remembered as much for the action during the race, but for the action that took place after the checkered flag. For the first time, the Daytona 500 was being shown live, flag-to-flag, by CBS. On the final lap, Donnie Allison was battling Cale Yarborough for the win. Yarborough moved below Allison coming off of turn 2. Allison tried to pinch him off, but Yarborough went to the grass and then slid back into Allison. Both cars keep colliding all the way down the straightaway and finally wrecked in turn 3. Richard Petty then went by them to win the race, but that was just the beginning of a memorable ending. Immediately, Cale and Donnie climbed out of their wrecked machines and proceeded to wreck each other. Donnie's brother, Bobby, stopped to aid his brother, but was soon brought into the scuffle. Ironically, the next race was at Richmond and the three drivers claimed the first three starting spots. Not even ten laps into the ! race, Donnie and Cale wrecked each other and both sat in the garage as they watched Bobby go on to win the race. 

1984 Firecracker 400    The President and The King

Ronald Reagan and
Richard Petty

In 1984, Ronald Reagan became the first President of the United States to attend a NASCAR race while he was in office. Reagan gave the command to start the engines from on board Air Force One. Reagan then landed at the Daytona airport just off the track's back straightaway. As the final laps approach, a lapped car wrecked in turn 1 and brought out the caution. Cale Yarborough took the lead from Richard Petty going down the back stretch, but Petty fought back and beat Yarborough to the line by inches to take the caution flag. The race never went back to green flag conditions because there were too few laps left when the caution came out and Richard Petty won his 200th and final race. 

1985    The Million Dollar Season

Million Dollar Bill Elliott

For the first time, Winston began a program that would award a unheard of one million dollars to any driver that could win three of the four crown jewels of NASCAR, including the Daytona 500 (the most prestigious race), the Winston 500 (the fastest race), the Coca-Cola World 600 (the longest race), and the Southern 500 (the oldest race). It had only been done twice in NASCAR history, and was so rare that R.J. Reynolds did not budget the money for its Winston Cup sponsorship. However, a red head from Georgia in a red Thunderbird proved that that was a mistake in judgment. Bill Elliott began the season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and dominating the race, leading 136 of the 200 laps on the way to victory. His next charge toward fame came at Talladega in the Winston 500. On lap 48 of 188, an oil line came loose on Elliott's car and he lost nearly two laps while having it repaired. What happened next is one of the most impressiv! e comebacks in stock car racing. Elliott returned to the track, and in less than 100 laps, made up enough ground to recapture the lead and win the Winston 500. Elliott's first shot at the million-dollar prize came at the Coca-Cola World 600, but mechanical problems knocked him out of the race. His final chance came at Darlington, in the Southern 500. Elliott started from the pole, but battled with Cale Yarborough throughout the race for the lead until Cale's car erupted in smoke from a broken power steering line. Elliott took the lead and went on to win the first Winston Million and set the record for the most superspeedway victories in a season with 11 wins. 

1987 Winston 500    A race of firsts and records 

The 1987 Winston 500 from Talladega was the sight of some incredible performances. Bill Elliott set the NASCAR speed record with a lap of 212.809mph. The race also saw, for the first time, every car qualify above the 200mph barrier. But perhaps the most impressive performance was that of a young rookie in the face of terror. Davey Allison began the 1987 season as a contender for the rookie of the year honors. At his home track, his father, Bobby Allison, suffered a horrifying crash in Talladega's tri-oval when his car went air born and slammed into the catch fence, nearly landing in the grandstands. Although he was concerned for his father, Davey took his #28 Texaco Ford to victory lane and went on to win later that year at Dover Downs, becoming the first driver to win two or more races in his rookie year. 

1988 Daytona 500     Two dreams come true

Father and son celebration

The 1988 Daytona 500 marked the first race with the infamous restrictor plates. However, it will always be remembered as the race that saw a father and son finish first and second. Bobby Allison was leading on the final lap of the Great American race, with his son Davey running in second. Davey mounted a charge in the final turn but could not get the lead from his father. Bobby went on to win the race. Sadly, later that season, Bobby was seriously injured in a crash at Pocono Raceway, suffering memory loss as the aftermath of the accident. He has since said that he can watch recordings of the finish in Daytona and see it, but because of his memory loss, he cannot remember the events and feelings of the greatest win of his career with his son right behind him.

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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