Editor’s Note: This is the third of a six-part series chronicling Talladega Superspeedway, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, featuring highlights from springtime racing events through the decades.
Springtime NASCAR premier series races in the 1980s at Talladega Superspeedway, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, were known for trademark finishes and “official” speed records, along with the greatest comeback in NASCAR history, the Alabama Gang’s protection of its home turf and Hall of Famers ruling the way.
The world’s largest and greatest superspeedway, which will host its tripleheader weekend featuring the GEICO 500 on April 26-28, was the creation of Big Bill France in 1969. It is the site where Benny Parsons made history in spring 1982, becoming the first driver to break the 200-mph mark in “official” qualifying for a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at a speed of 200.176 mph. Twelve years earlier, Buddy Baker, in a winged, aerodynamic Dodge Daytona that was banned after the 1970 season, eclipsed 200 mph during a testing session on the 2.66-mile, 33-degree banked venue, but it wasn’t during qualifying for an official race.
Just four years later in 1986, the mammoth track hosted the first “all-200 mph” qualifying field in stock car history, led by Bill Elliott at better than 212 mph. Twelve months later, Elliott, in his famous No. 9 Ford, would rewrite the history books yet again, this time turning a hot lap of 212.809 mph, a NASCAR record that still stands today. Elliott would show his dominance of speed, capturing six straight pole positions, sweeping both Talladega races from 1985 through 1987.
While the speeds increased during the decade, the fantastic finishes became the norm. All but one of the races were won by a nail-biting car length or less, while Elliott’s 1.72-second triumph in 1985 will go down in history as the greatest comeback in NASCAR lore.
Below are quick recaps of each springtime race at Talladega in the ‘80s, which captured memorable moments that will last forever:
- 1980: With just a little more than 30 laps to go, Baker, who had pitted for four fresh tires, was 18 seconds behind leader Dale Earnhardt, who had taken on only two tires during his final stop. Handling better in the turns, Baker cut more than a half-second off the lead and eventually passed Earnhardt with three to go. Earnhardt made a last-ditch effort for the win coming to the checkered flag but fell 3 feet short.
- 1981: Bobby Allison held off the trio of Baker, Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd in a dazzling show that featured six lead changes over the final seven laps between Baker and Allison.
- 1982: Waltrip bettered Terry Labonte, Parsons and Kyle Petty as the quartet was only inches apart at the finish line. Waltrip would come back later in the year for a ‘Dega sweep.
- 1983: Richard Petty claimed his second and final Talladega win by holding off Parsons, Lake Speed and Harry Gant.
- 1984: Talladega established itself as the most competitive track in NASCAR, setting the all-time NASCAR record for lead changes with 75 that stood until 2011, when the track broke its own record in the spring event. Cale Yarborough made a last-lap pass and won over Gant by a car length, with Baker third and Allison fourth.
- 1985: In the most dramatic comeback in history, Elliott came from nearly two laps down (more than five miles) under green flag conditions to win. Giving up the lead on lap 37 after a lengthy pit stop to repair a loose oil line, Elliott spectacularly retook the lead with the assistance of a caution period on lap 145. He won at an average speed of 186.288 mph while blowing past the likes of Kyle Petty, Yarborough and Allison.
- 1986: In a 42-car field that saw all drivers qualify at better than 200 mph, Allison negated Earnhardt’s turn 4 effort to pass for the lead. Baker was a close third. It would be Allison’s fourth and final triumph at Talladega.
- 1987: In what was the fastest field in NASCAR history (the average speed of starters was 207.049 mph), Davey Allison celebrated his first Cup victory in front of his hometown fans over Labonte and Kyle Petty. Davey’s father, Bobby, was involved in a crash that later resulted (1988) in NASCAR’s implementation of restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona.
- 1988: Phil Parsons, younger brother of Benny, captured his first and only victory in NASCAR’s premier series by edging Bobby Allison.
- 1989: Davey Allison recorded his second spring victory with a stellar effort over Labonte, who secured his third runner-up finish in eight spring events. Mark Martin was just a few feet behind in third.
The competitors who visited Talladega’s Gatorade Victory Lane in the spring races of the ‘80s would win a total of 23 times at the track before their retirements: Baker – 4, Bobby Allison – 4, Waltrip – 4, Richard Petty – 2, Yarborough – 3, Elliott – 2, Davey Allison – 3, and Phil Parsons – 1. All but Parsons are members of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, while six are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (all but Parsons and Baker, who incidentally is a 2020 nominee).
Talladega Superspeedway’s record book will be rewritten in the track’s 100th race in the Monster Cup Series during the GEICO 500. The weekend kicks off a motorsports tripleheader with the General Tire 200 for the ARCA Menards Series (which has been a staple of Talladega Superspeedway since October 1969) on Friday, April 26, and the MoneyLion 300 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday, April 27. The GEICO 500 gets a 1 p.m. start on Sunday, April 28. For ticket information, log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).