Every so often, a race is so good they call it a “classic.” Undoubtedly, that’s what the 1988 Southern 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Darlington (S.C.) International Raceway will be tagged. In this edition of the oldest superspeedway race in NASCAR, Bill Elliott held off a determined challenge from Rusty Wallace to win for the fifth time in the ’88 season. But it was much more than that. It was the perfect scenario. Elliott, first in the Winston Cup point standings, narrowly defeated Wallace, second in the standings, while coming home third was Dale Earnhardt, third in the point standings.
As a result, Elliott extended his margin over Wallace, leaving Darlington with a 26-point pad over Wallace while Earnhardt lost 15 points and stood 141 behind Elliott.
Over the last 36 laps of the 367-lap affair on the 1.366-mile track, Elliott and Wallace staged a duel that won’t soon be forgotten. Elliott held the lead in his Melling/Coors Ford Thunderbird, but Wallace repeatedly put the nose of his Blue Max/Kodiak Pontiac Grand Prix SE underneath, particularly in the tight second turn. But he could never pass.
“All I tried to do was not make a mistake,” said Elliott, who captured his second career Southern 500 by a mere 0.24-second over Wallace. “I knew if I did, Rusty would be there. But the car worked well and I worked the lapped traffic to my advantage.”
Elliott’s only problem all day was an unscheduled pit stop on lap 132, when he was forced off the track to have two lug nuts tightened. He came out in 13th place, but he knew he had plenty of time to make up the distance.
He did so, but on lap 261, while running in fourth place, the left-rear tire on his car began smoking badly. Everyone figured it would be just a matter of time before he would be out of the race. However, the problem solved itself, as his new tires wore and the extra width on the sidewalls – which were rubbing the sheet metal – rescinded.
On lap 315, the race restarted after its ninth caution period. Wallace had pitted for gas, but Earnhardt, running first, and runner-up Elliott remained on the track. They were running in the top three when all pitted for tires and gas on the 10th caution period.
When it ended on lap 331, Elliott was in front, followed by Earnhardt and Wallace.
“That was to my advantage because I knew they would be fighting each other and I might be able to pull away,” said Elliott.
Elliott did pull away, but still was challenged by Wallace, who passed Earnhardt for second on lap 335. The race was down to them from that point.
Following Elliott, Wallace and Earnhardt in fourth place was Darrell Waltrip in the Hendrick/Tide Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. Sterling Marlin ran a fine race in his Hagan/ Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile Cutlass and finished fifth.
With such a close finish and eight races remaining in ’88, it was clear the contest for the championship was going right down to the wire.
-Grand National Illustrated (January 1989)