Darrell Waltrip won the first running of The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1985, to get his first victory of any kind that season.
Until NASCAR’s version of an “all star” race, the only driver in the Junior Johnson & Associates stable to win a race was Neil Bonnett, who won twice in the year’s first 10 races at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
Junior felt – knew – it was time for Waltrip and his team to pick up the pace if they wanted to earn a third Winston Cup championship.
But even that might not get the job done. Young Bill Elliott was on a tear. He won five superspeedway races through the early portion of the season and stood in first place in the point standings.
He was also poised to win a $1 million bonus. If he could win the Coca-Cola World 600, the final and most important event of race week at Charlotte, the money was his.
For Junior the perfect scenario at Charlotte would be for Waltrip to win the race and, in so doing, take the measure of Elliott.
It wouldn’t be easy – if at all possible.
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I don’t care how controversial the finish was – the engine in Darrell’s Chevrolet blew just after he crossed the finish line – winning the inaugural The Winston was a real tonic for Junior Johnson & Associates.
Darrell finally won a race in 1985 and while it wasn’t a points-paying event, it removed any doubts that he could get the job done and the team could prepare a winning car for him.
I reckon the only concern I had was if we could provide a car that would let Darrell win a 500-mile race instead of one that lasted just 105 miles.
It turns out we couldn’t – seems we gave him a car that won a 600-mile race.
That race was the Coca-Cola World 600, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, the day after The Winston.
The atmosphere for that race was unlike any other I had experienced. It seems the media, fans – heck, everybody – had a very strong interest in the outcome.
That’s because Bill Elliott came to CMS with the chance to win The Winston Million, which was a program that awarded $1 million to any driver who could win three of four selected races.
Bill had already won five superspeedway races coming into Charlotte and among them were the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500.
If he won at Charlotte he’d pocket that $1 million before the season was half over.
So all eyes were on Bill. I felt some sympathy for the guy. He told everyone he dreaded coming to Charlotte and I could see why.
He didn’t get a minute’s peace. He was hounded by the media and his fans almost everywhere he went – pits, garage area, you name it. I don’t think he had much private time at all.
Now, while I felt a little bit sorry for him, I wasn’t all that sorry. After all, the guy was No. 1 in points. He was the driver we had to beat to win another championship and, through the first 10 races of the season, we hadn’t come close to doing it. No one else had either, for that matter.
I thought that all the distractions he endured at Charlotte might just take away from his race preparation. Of course, I wasn’t sure. But I was sure that if Darrell was in the same position, well, it wouldn’t be a good thing.
Danged if Bill didn’t win the pole. So much for distractions.
I had never seen as many fans attend a Charlotte race as I did when the 600 began. I don’t think there was an empty seat in the place and the infield was full. I was told later there were 155,000 or more in attendance.
Bill sure had strong drawing power, I’ll say that.
But those that came to see Bill win $1 million were disappointed, and in very short order.
He did lead the first 13 laps but he quickly fell off the pace – which was something no one had seen so far in 1985.
Bill had to drop out of the race with brake failure. And by the time his team made repairs and got him back on the track he was 21 laps down.
He wasn’t going to earn a million bucks that day.
Meanwhile, Darrell raced to the front and was quickly in contention for the victory.
Harry Gant – it seemed that guy was always up front – led laps 328-390 of the race’s 400 laps and then pitted for fuel. That gave Darrell the lead.
Then, after Darrell’s stop for gas, his wife Stevie, who was in our pits figuring gas mileage, got real concerned. She said she didn’t think Darrell had enough fuel to finish the race. He was going to be three or four laps short.
Here we go again, I thought. Once more we may lose a race we should win.
I decided to let Darrell remain on the track. If he was gonna run out of gas, durn it, it would be while going for the win.
I thought he could make it. Well, let’s say I hoped he could make it.
He did, barely. He beat Harry and then ran out of gas on the cool-down lap. That’s cutting it close.
The victory was a real relief for Darrell and me. It was our first points-paying victory of the season. It ended an early-season slump and gave us some real momentum for the remainder of the year.
By sweeping the weekend at Charlotte, we earned nearly $500,000. It ain’t a million bucks, but it’s big-time money. I didn’t mind that a bit.
Like I said, the 600 victory was a big boost for us.
But then, while he might not have been able to do much at Charlotte, I had the strong feeling we hadn’t seen the last of Bill Elliott.