TALLADEGA, Ala., May 5, 1985 – In the spring of 1985, Bill Elliott was the fastest driver on the fastest race track – and it was probably the only time that year the word “comeback” was associated with “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.” But Elliott needed an “Improba-Bill” comeback to win the Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Speedway and have a chance to become “Million Dollar Bill.”
Elliott entered the 1985 season with four career NASCAR Winston Cup victories – but three of them occurred the previous year when he finished third in the points standings in just his second full season as a Cup driver and third with team owner Harry Melling. In 30 races in 1984, Elliott collected 13 top-fives, 24 top-10s, four poles and seven outside poles.
In 1985 alone, Elliott produced 11 victories, 11 poles and more than $2 million in winnings – including the richest single-day payday in motorsports history.
That year, for the first time, any driver who won a majority of NASCAR Winston Cup’s marquee races – Daytona 500, Winston 500, Coca-Cola World 600 and Southern 500 – would collect an unprecedented seven-figure windfall, the Winston Million. If no driver won at least three, the first to win two would pocket a $100,000 bonus.
Elliott won the first, the Daytona 500, in convincing fashion. He started from the pole, led 136 of 200 laps and beat Lake Speed, the only other driver on the lead lap, by almost a full second.
Eight races – and two victories – later, Elliott won the pole for the Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Speedway with a then-speed record 209.398 mph. A victory there would leave him a victory at Charlotte or Darlington away from that $1 million payday.
However, about a quarter of the way into the Winston 500, the oil pump in Elliott’s Coors/Melling Thunderbird began to leak, forcing him into an unscheduled pit stop. Meanwhile, the cars on the track were turning laps in excess of 200 mph – the distance of a football field every second. And Elliott was falling farther and farther behind.
When the repairs were completed and he returned to the track, he was about to be lapped for a second time. Lapped at Talladega means 2.66 miles off the pace. Lapped again means being down 51/4 miles, more than 28,000 feet of high-banked superspeedway asphalt. If the distance were a mountain it would be – by far – the tallest in the United States, surpassing Mt. McKinley by nearly a mile and a half, the fourth-tallest in the world, or better yet, a mere 454 feet, give or take a few inches, shorter than Mt. Everest.
Elliott started his comeback and within 100 laps – 266 miles – he was back in front – without the benefit of a caution. He held the lead for 35 of the remaining 44 laps, including the final 20, to win the second leg of the “Big Four.” Elliott completed the 500 miles in two hours, 41 minutes and four seconds for an average speed of 186.288 mph, a record for 500 miles. Kyle Petty and Cale Yarborough finished second and third, respectively, to give Ford its first 1-2-3 finish since the 1969 Dixie 500 at Atlanta.
Darrell Waltrip, who would go on to win the 1985 points championship, won the Coca-Cola World 600 at Charlotte in late May, but Elliott would win at Darlington on Labor Day Weekend to earn the Winston Million.
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, for winning three of the “Big Four” in 1985 won $1 million, or more than $200,000 more than Terry Labonte won in 1984 when he was the NASCAR Winston Cup champion and the circuit’s leading money winner.
“Winning any one of those four races in a year is difficult,” Elliott explained. “Winning two is twice as hard because everyone is aiming at you after you win the first one. But to win three is a tribute to the way a team works together throughout the season. To win the Winston Million you have to have a good car, which we do with the Coors/Melling Thunderbird, you have to have good engines, which my brother Ernie works hours and hours to provide, but most of all you have to have a team that works hard to prepare cars for every race. You must have all of those – and you have to have some luck, too.”
After winning at Darlington, Elliott led the points standings by 206 points over Waltrip with eight races remaining, but he wouldn’t hold on to win the championship. Elliott would win one more race that year, and despite a NASCAR Winston Cup-leading 11 victories – all on superspeedway – would finish second in the standings to Waltrip by 101 points.
Elliott would win two races and finish fourth in the points standings in 1986 and second in the standings in ’87 before winning his first – and only – Winston Cup title in ’88. Elliott collected 40 wins in a Ford in his career, second only to Ned Jarrett (43).