The 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup season began with a refreshing outlook for a sport that had endured a tumultuous trek through peaks and valleys in the preceding 10 years.
Through a complex, shifting panorama, NASCAR overcame innumerable obstacles in the 1970s and emerged in 1980 with one of the most thrilling championship chases in NASCAR history between sophomore Dale Earnhardt and veteran Cale Yarborough.
Buddy Baker started out the year by driving his Ranier Racing Oldsmobile to an impressive victory after many years of hard luck in The Great American Race. It was Baker's 18th Daytona 500 start, for which he won $102,175, the first time a NASCAR winner took home more than $100,000 in a single event.
1980 also saw Rusty Wallace make his NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National debut in a Chevrolet owned by Roger Pensk while David Pearson snatched his 105th career NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National victory, raising his all-time position for wins to second behind Richard Petty; the record still stands today.
In March, Dale Earnhardt fended off a pesky Rusty Wallace to score his first superspeedway victory in the Atlanta 500. Earnhardt came from the 31st starting position to beat Wallace by 9.55 seconds. Wallace was making his NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National debut in a Chevrolet owned by Roger Penske.
Dale Earnhardt took the championship points lead in the Daytona 500 and staved off challenges by Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough to capture the 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup title by 19 points over Yarborough, becoming the first driver to win Rookie of the Year and championship honors in back-to-back seasons.
Petty was within 48 points of Earnhardt in late July, but he broke his neck in a crash at Pocono. Petty concealed the injury from NASCAR so he could continue racing and other relief drivers assisted Petty, but he eventually fell from contention.
New NASCAR guidelines for the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup season resulted in cars that twitched frighteningly at high speeds and had to be stabilized with large spoilers.
The Daytona 500 featured 49 lead changes and set the tone for the rest of the exciting 1981 campaign. Over the course of the 31-race season in 1981, fans witnessed 772 lead changes—a mark that still stands despite the fact that five races have been added to the annual schedule. A record five races were also determined by a last-lap pass, another standard that still stands.
1981 saw Richard Petty win his record seventh Daytona 500. Petty's longtime crew chief Dale Inman quit two days later to accept a job with the Rod Osterlund/Dale Earnhardt team.
The year also contained rookie Morgan Shepherd's upset win in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville, giving the Pontiac nameplate its first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National win since 1963.
1981 was a banner year for rookies, as rookie Ron Bouchard passed Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in the final stretch to win the Talladega 500. The lead cars finish three-abreast as Bouchard won in his 11th career start.
By the 1982 NASCAR Winston Cup season, the importance of team sponsorship had become paramount.
Costs were rising sharply, and teams had to perform well to secure and keep sponsorship. Winning races was a prerequisite, and crews often challenged the savvy of the NASCAR technical inspectors in their efforts to gain a "competitive edge." The tradition was as old as stock car racing itself and was considered part of the game.
1982 was a banner year for Tim Richmond, as he drove a Buick to his first career NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National victory in the 400-kilometer event at Riverside International Raceway.
This was also the year when Darrell Waltrip became the first driver to win the Talladega 500 twice. Entering the race, 13 different drivers had won the 13 previous runnings of the midsummer classic at the world's fastest speedway.
In the early part of the 1983 NASCAR Winston Cup campaign, NASCAR began cracking down on teams that were stepping beyond the rules. Early in the season, such prohibited items as illegal fuel cans, unapproved fuel cells, and other ingenious "modifications" were confiscated by NASCAR officials.
But threats failed to curtail the imagination of the sport's top mechanics. Throughout the season, a number of violations were detected and confiscated.
The controversy came to a head in October, when seven-time champ Richard Petty won the Miller High Life 500 but was then found to be using illegal tires and a too-large engine. The scandal destroyed Petty's decades-long relationship with Petty Enterprises and dogged him long after.
The 1984 NASCAR Winston Cup season got off to a quick start with Cale Yarborough's win at the Daytona 500.
But an even higher point came at the July 4 Firecracker 400. With President Reagan in attendance, Richard Petty won his magical 200th NASCAR Winston Cup race. The finish awed the president. It was the second and final victory of the 1984 season for the King of NASCAR—and it turned out to be the final win of his career.
At season's close, Terry Labonte parlayed consistency to win the championship on the strength of just two wins but 17 top-five finishes. Petty finished a distant 10th in the final standings.
Bill Elliott emerged as a bona fide superspeedway hero in the 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup season. Elliott won 11 superspeedway races in 1985, still a single-season record. He gobbled up every laurel and postseason award possible, yet he didn't win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship. That honor went to Darrell Waltrip, who won three races: The intricacies of the NASCAR points system rewarded consistency in 1985.
The 1985 All-Star race was a big bonus to the drivers and fans of NASCAR Winston Cup racing. The inaugural running of the event, which was open to all drivers who won races in 1984, was staged at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The event was "on the house" for NASCAR enthusiasts who had paid to see a race the day before.
Darrell Waltrip finished seventh at Riverside at season's end but still wrapped up his third NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championship. Bill Elliott experienced transmission problems early, erasing his title hopes.
And NASCAR was about to crack the world of racing wide open.