NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1986-1989)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2010

Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's darling youngster in the early 1980s, rebounded during the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season from a few sluggish years after his electrifying championship as a sophomore in 1980. Earnhardt's Wrangler Jeans machine ran up front every week.

Along the way, Earnhardt ruffled a few feathers, crumpled some sheet metal, shoved rivals out of the way, and acquired the nickname "The Intimidator." Earnhardt's thrilling driving style made the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season a joy to watch.

Following an announcement in late 1985, NASCAR changed the names of its premier stock car racing series and its second-ranked division. "Grand National" had been dropped from the Winston Cup Series and shifted to the old Late Model Sportsman division. 

"We feel our friends at Winston deserve a name of their own," said NASCAR president Bill France, Jr. The official titles of NASCAR's two leading stock car racing series become NASCAR Winston Cup and NASCAR Busch Grand National.

Dale Earnhardt grabbed his second NASCAR Winston Cup champion ship in 1986, finishing a comfortable 288 points ahead of runner-up Darrell Waltrip. The determined Richard Childress Chevrolet driver never let anybody challenge his healthy advantage for the remainder of the season. He held a lead of at least 100 points the entire second half of the season.

Meanwhile, Tim Richmond compiled the biggest numbers during the season, winning seven races and eight poles. But Richmond's slow start to the season made it impossible for him to overtake Earnhardt. Waltrip won three races and edged Richmond for second place by only six points. Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd rounded out the top five.

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Like the 1986 season, Dale Earnhardt was at center stage during the 1987 NASCAR Winston Cup campaign. Many of Earnhardt's adversaries claimed his aggressive driving style led to unnecessary incidents—and there was plenty of damaged sheet metal along the way.

The season-long controversy came to a head during The Winston, NASCAR's all-star race, on May 17, 1987. Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, and Geoff Bodine bumped, scraped, and blocked each other to the end in one of the most memorable finishes in stock car racing history. 

All three drivers were fined and placed on probation after the fracas. The Winston of 1987 is still regarded as one of the most energized and spectacular thrill shows in NASCAR Cup Series history, though cooler heads prevailed for the remainder of the year.  

The 1987 season started out with driver Tim Richmond announcing he will miss the first part of the NASCAR Winston Cup season with an illness he says is "double pneumonia." Team owner Rick Hendrick announces Benny Parsons will replace Richmond until he can return.

The same year also saw Bill Elliott win the pole for the Winston 500 at Talladega with a record run of 212.809 mph. Rookie Davey Allison won the race in his 14th career NASCAR Winston Cup start. The event was marred by a scary crash when Bobby Allison blew a tire and sailed into the catch fence. The race was halted for three hours while the fence was repaired.

Earnhardt blasted out of the starting blocks by winning six of the first eight races in the 1987 NASCAR Winston Cup season and coasted to his third championship. By September, Earnhardt had built up a hefty 608-point lead. 

On the strength of 11 victories in his 29 starts, Earnhardt finished 489 points in front of runner-up Bill Elliott, who won six races. Earnhardt finished out of the top five in only eight races. The outcome of the championship was never in doubt past April.

By the end of the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup season, a number of time-honored icons were hanging up their helmets. NASCAR Winston Cup champions Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, and Bobby Allison retired—Allison due to debilitating injuries suffered at Pocono in the 1988 Miller High Life 500. The retirement of these legends made way for a new generation of leaders. 

The stage was set, though, at the beginning of the year, when the "Allison Wonderland" father-son combo of Bobby and Davey Allison graced the finish line 1-2 first and second in NASCAR's most prestigious event. Richard Petty survived a wild tumble just past the halfway point of the race, and NASCAR's "tire wars" began as 10 teams used Hoosier tires at Daytona. 

Rusty Wallace, one of NASCAR's finest road racers, tamed the field to win the Budweiser 400 at Riverside International Raceway. The event was the final NASCAR Winston Cup race staged at the venerable Southern California road course.

Other last events included Bobby Allison being critically injured in an opening-lap crash in Pocono's Miller High Life 500, when Allison's Buick suffered a flat tire and spun in the "tunnel turn"; it was then hit in the driver's door by Jocko Maggiacomo.  Also, the Talladega DieHard 500 race is Buddy Baker's last, as he was forced to retire when a blood clot is discovered in his brain.

Bill Elliott overcame challenges by Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt to win the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. After leading the standings from June until late August, Wallace stumbled in September and was 124 points behind with five races remaining. 

Wallace won four of the final five races, but Elliott performed well enough in those events to wrap up his first title. He finished 24 points ahead of Wallace. Earnhardt led the standings from March through early June, but fell off the pace in the second half of the season and placed third, 232 points behind Elliott.

The 1989 NASCAR Winston Cup season was in the midst of an upsurge. As the 1980s drew to a close, the popularity of NASCAR stock car racing was skyrocketing upward dramatically.

Sponsorship from corporate America was strong, the dynamic heroes behind the wheel were becoming household names, and all of the NASCAR Winston Cup events were being televised live. Track-side attendance was running at record levels and promoters were adding new grandstands to accommodate the demand for tickets.

On a sad note, Tim Richmond, an energized and immensely popular driver, had electrified the audience with his brazen displays of courage only to die prematurely of the AIDS virus in 1989. Richmond was Winston Cup racing's top winner in 1986, but had to sit out most of the 1987 campaign as he concealed the identity of his illness.

In his 17th Daytona 500 start, Darrell Waltrip prevailed in an economy run. Waltrip ran the final 132.5 miles without a pit stop and coasted across the finish line 7.64 seconds ahead of runner-up Ken Schrader.

Most of the field runs on Hoosier tires as Goodyear pulls out of the race due to safety concerns with its new radial tire.  Goodyear did gain redemption later that year however, when Dale Earnhardt ran away from Alan Kulwicki to win the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway as the new Goodyear radial tire made its NASCAR Winston Cup debut.

"The more I drove on them, the better I liked the radials," said Earnhardt.

Bob Newton, president of Hoosier Tire Co., announced he would withdraw from NASCAR competition following the 1989 season. Newton's 18-employee Indiana-based company began making tires for NASCAR Winston Cup cars in 1988.

Hoosier stood toe-to-toe with corporate giant Goodyear for two seasons, and registered more than a dozen victories. Facing impossible odds, Newton finally tossed in the towel.

"Even though we are considered to be the world's smallest tire manufacturer, we competed with the world's largest to demonstrate that the small guy can also be a winner," said Newton.

Rusty Wallace took the lead from Dale Earnhardt with five races remaining to win the 1989 NASCAR Winston Cup championship.  Wallace and Earnhardt engaged in a hard-fought battle for supremacy during the season.

While racing side-by-side at Rockingham in the 27th race of the 29-race campaign, Wallace slid into Earnhardt, forcing him into a spin. Earnhardt left Rockingham trailing by 109 points, but he staged a furious rally in the final two events.

Needing only to finish 18th in the season finale at Atlanta, Rusty nursed his Pontiac to a 15th-place finish as Earnhardt dominated the race. Wallace squeaked out a narrow 12-point decision over Earnhardt to take his first NASCAR Winston Cup title.