Elliott’s 1985 Season Proved Nothing Is Certain

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 10/8/10

One of the things that always amuses me about the latter half of the racing season is watching all the various pundits try to be the first to name who the Sprint Cup Championship will go to.

First they’ll point to somebody who carries momentum into the chase.  Then they’ll jump on the bandwagon of the first winner, only to promptly claim that the second race winner was the one to watch all along.

The truth is, in racing, one sure fact carries through no matter what.  The only thing you can expect is the unexpected.  It’s the one factor you can’t plan for, and it’s the one thing that can keep people coming back week after week.

But while we watch things unfold, seeing the racing pundits trying to name the eventual champion at this point brings back memories of a Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member who seemed invincible as NASCAR hit its summer stride, but who saw his championship hopes slip away in a post-Labor Day slide.

The year was 1985.

Bill Elliott and his Harry Melling owned team served notice to the competition at Daytona in February that they would be a force that year.

First Elliott sat on the pole with a then record speed of 205.114 mph. Then he went on to lead 136 of 200 laps in a show of dominating force that hadn’t been seen at Daytona in years.

After two bad luck runs at Richmond and Rockingham, Elliott silenced all doubters with another win at Atlanta, followed by a third at Darlington.

But, by far, Elliott fired the biggest shot at Talladega in May.

After starting on the pole, Elliott held the point early, until his Ford began trailing smoke. An oil line had come loose, and the Elliott team spent two laps in the pits fixing it.

Bill Elliott was the obvious choice to win the Winston Cup title in 1985, but fate intervened. Photo courtesy the Ray Lamm collection

What happened next is, without a doubt, the greatest comeback in NASCAR history.

As leader Cale Yarborough led the field around at 200 mph, Elliott made up both laps without the aid of a caution flag, to put himself back on the lead lap.

As many watched in disbelief, Elliott then put the icing on the cake. He came around everyone again, and took the lead.

Elliott won the race going away. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and likely never will again at Talladega.

From there, Elliott seemed unstoppable. He picked up wins at Dover and Pocono, and then recorded win number seven of the year at Michigan on June 16.

All of the railbirds felt that Elliott had the championship in the bag.

Elliott’s performances only cemented that belief, as he won two more times, leading to Labor Day weekend, and the Southern 500, where his victory over Yarborough’s ailing Ford gave him a million dollar payday after his earlier wins at Daytona and Talladega.

With a 206-point lead, the pundits were quick to name Elliott the presumptive champ.

But it didn’t work out that way.

The win at Darlington signaled the beginning of a slide for the Elliott team. Four races in a row saw Elliott finish outside of the top ten, including a 30th place effort at North Wilkesboro.

Meanwhile, Darrell Waltrip and Junior Johnson were lurking in the shadows, watching for their opportunity.

Waltrip and Johnson were two of the wiliest competitors of all time in NASCAR, and when Elliott faltered, they charged.

Waltrip finished second in three of the four events that followed Darlington, and took the points lead from the Georgia driver at North Wilkesboro. He also won at Rockingham, while Elliott finished fourth.

Elliott rebounded with a big win at Atlanta, closing the gap to only 20 points with the final race of the season at Riverside International Raceway looming ahead.

With both drivers having seen success at the historic California road course, the season finale promised to be a fierce battle between the two.

But it didn’t happen. Transmission woes left Elliott 23 laps down, while Waltrip scampered to a fifth place finish and his third championship.

Elliott’s 11 wins that season still proved it to be his most successful, despite missing the championship. Despite the pundits’ predictions, he proved that nothing in life is certain.

As we watch the final races of 2010 play out, the pundits and railbirds will again jockey to be the first to name the eventual champion.

But remember the lesson that was learned back in 1985. It’s an old one, summed up best by a legend from another sport.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

Editor’s note: Portions of this column were originally published in the July 24, 2008 edition of The Jackson Herald.

Brandon Reed is the editor and webmaster of Georgia Racing History.com.

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