Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: In 1985, Bill Elliott’s Title Bid Crumbles in Last 8 Races

In 1985, Bill Elliott enjoyed one of the most historic seasons in NASCAR Cup Series history.

The driver from Dawsonville, Ga. became arguably NASCAR’s most popular driver as he stifled the competition and carved his name into the record book by winning 11 superspeedway races.

More significantly, one of those victories came in the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest, and perhaps most difficult, racetrack.

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That was Elliott’s third victory at four selected speedways which comprised the Winston Million program introduced that year by series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The accomplishment earned Elliott a $1 million bonus and greatly enhanced his image as a successful driver, certainly among fans and media.

After Labor Day weekend at Darlington, he was no longer a red-haired country boy the media called “Huck Finn.” He was now “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”

But by the end of the 1985 season, as brilliant as Elliott had been, there was something missing, something nearly everyone thought he would easily achieve.

He did not win the 1985 Cup championship. With eight races remaining after Darlington, he was 285 points ahead of Darrell Waltrip.

When the season ended, Waltrip was the champion by 101 points over Elliott. It was a significant reversal.

How did it happen? Elliott’s on-track performances over the closing weeks of the season were not up to the standard he had established earlier.

But there was also this: Elliott and his team were subjected to the kind of mind games and psychological barbs the likes of which they had never experienced.

The perpetrator was their rival, the sharp-tongued Waltrip.

Waltrip’s gift of gab wasn’t anything new. Fans saw it almost as soon as he broke into regular Cup competition in 1975. He was far from ordinary. He was brash, opinionated and quick-witted.

All of which didn’t do much for his popularity. Many fans thought he was a smart Alec who disrespected the stars of the day, like Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough (with whom Waltrip had a lengthy feud).

But there was a method in Waltrip’s madness. He knew that to move up the NASCAR competition ladder, he had to draw attention to himself. That would happen more quickly if he won races, of course, but it would help if he became a media target.

And what better way to become a media target than to offer them strong opinions laced with irreverent humor?

Waltrip may have been the most-quoted driver on the air and in print. Of course, that didn’t please everyone.

Nevertheless, Waltrip sped through the ranks. By 1985, he already won 63 races and two championships – which came in 1981 and 1982, his first two seasons with Junior Johnson.

For most of 1985, Waltrip’s natural gift for glib didn’t do him much good. He, along with nearly every other competitor, was totally overshadowed by Elliott and his achievements.

That changed after Darlington.

A week later at Richmond Raceway, Waltrip won the Wrangler Sanfor-set 400 while Elliott finished 12th, an uncharacteristic two laps down.

Then at Dover Motor Speedway, Waltrip finished second to Harry Gant while Elliott faltered badly. He led much of the early going but a broken rear axle after 230 laps resulted in a 69-lap stay behind the wall and, ultimately, a 20th-place finish.

As a result, Waltrip’s points deficit dropped from 206 points to 86 in just two races – and he knew it.

“Boys, I think Bill and his guys are finding out that it can be a jungle out there,” Waltrip said with a grin. “Gosh, I sure hope they don’t get eat up by something.”

It was much the same at Martinsville Speedway, where Waltrip finished second to Dale Earnhardt and Elliott wound up 17th, 33 laps down.

There had been a major swing in momentum in just three races after Darlington. Waltrip had racked up one win and two runner-up finishes while Elliott could not crack the top 10.

Waltrip’s surge was not a big surprise. Johnson cars had routinely been superior on short tracks whereas Elliott had shown his muscle on the superspeedways.

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Waltrip took the points lead at another short track, North Wilkesboro Speedway, but not because he was his usual dominant self.

He spent seven laps on pit road as his team replaced a distributor. Normally, that would offer Elliott the long-awaited moment to, at last, beat his rival.

But fate slapped him again. Elliott’s No. 9 Ford suffered a broken transmission and he wound up in 30th place in a 31-car field. Waltrip was 14th, a difference of 53 points.

That was enough for Waltrip to assume the points lead.

“Well, we had problems of our own,” Waltrip said, “but not as big as Bill and his boys. If we had been healthy, we could have driven the nail in the coffin.

“As it is, well, we’ve shown ‘em the hammer, haven’t we? Gee, Bill must be shaky now after what we’ve done. We’ve made up something like 206 points in a month. That just must have spooked ‘em.”

The next three races on the schedule were on big tracks, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Rockingham Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. Thus, the odds shifted to Elliott’s favor. If he was going to change the tide, it would likely be done over three weeks.

At Charlotte, Elliott finished second while Waltrip was fourth. Waltrip’s lead was trimmed to 20 points – which indicated that, perhaps, the championship battle was going to be intense with three races remaining.

“I’ve been here before,” Waltrip said. “Bill hasn’t. He’s going to have to deal with the pressure.”

Surprisingly, Waltrip won at Rockingham while Elliott took fourth place. Waltrip’s advantage increased slightly, to 35 points with two races to go.

Elliott did what he had to do at Atlanta. He won easily on what was on his hometown track. It was his 11th superspeedway victory, eclipsing the record held by Pearson, who won 10 big-track events in 1973.

However, Waltrip finished third to hold a 20-point lead going into the final race of the year on the road course in Riverside, Calif.

“Ask me, we’ve got ‘em where we want ‘em,” Waltrip said.

He was right, sort of.

Fate hit Elliott with another blow. Just six laps into the race, a bolt was sheared off his transmission and subsequently, he was off the track for lengthy repairs and wound up 31st.

All Waltrip had to do was cruise and stay out of trouble, which he did to earn seventh place and his third Cup championship by 101 points.

He didn’t stop talking.

“What makes this championship more exciting is that the other guy has had so much success this season,” Waltrip said. “Everybody was giving him the championship, especially after Darlington.

“We weren’t. We knuckled down and did what we had to do. Reckon Bill wasn’t the only successful driver this year, was he?”

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Elliott accepted his defeat gracefully. If he or his team were ever affected by Waltrip’s verbosity, he never admitted it.

But what he must have known is that he might well have won the title without his season-ending string of subpar performances. They were severely damaging.

Over the course of eight races, Elliott won once and was among the top four twice.

But he didn’t crack the top 10 in five others, including finishes of 30th at North Wilkesboro and 31st at Riverside International Raceway.

Waltrip raced one more season with Johnson before he moved on to Hendrick Motorsports. He never won another championship.

Elliott would finally win a title in 1988.

In 1992, ironically, he was racing for Johnson. It developed that he had a strong chance to win another title.

But he didn’t. He lost by 10 points.

I suspect nearly everyone knows that story.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Kevin in SoCal

Thank you Steve, for the great info.

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