Throwback Thursday Theater: Earnhardt Edges Irvan in Talladega Photo Finish

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Just days after the heart wrenching loss of Davey Allison to a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returned to the 2.66-mile track for the 1993 running of the DieHard 500.

Following a stirring pre-race tribute to Allison involving his family, the 43 drivers that made up the field that day strapped in for what was going to a barnburner of a race under the scorching July sun.

Bill Elliott won the pole, with Ernie Irvan starting alongside for the 188-lap affair. Elliott would lead the first lap, but Irvan took over at lap two, making his presence known early and often.

Joining Irvan as one of the top contenders was Dale Earnhardt, who had five Talladega wins to his credit by that point in his storied career.

The first caution of the day would fly at lap 57 for a crash by up and coming open wheel star Robby Gordon, as he lost control of his car in the frontstretch tri-oval and spun into the outside wall. Gordon had taken over the No. 28 car formerly piloted by Davey Allison before his untimely passing. The Talladega race was the first time Robert Yates had entered that car since Allison’s death 12 days prior.

A few laps after returning to green, one of the wildest crashes ever to happen at Talladega broke out. Six cars were involved in the wreck, but the focus quickly turned to the cars of Jimmy Horton and Stanley Smith.

In those days, there were portions of the track at Talladega that did not have a catchfence on the outside of the turn and Turn 1 was one of those locations. As a result, Horton earned his nickname of “Air Horton” as his No. 32 Chevrolet was launched over the Turn 1 wall and wound up in a parking lot at the bottom of the hill on the opposite side.

Though Horton’s car was demolished, he walked away from the crash unscathed and the remains of the vehicle now reside at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on the grounds at Talladega.

While Horton walked away, Alabama native Stanley Smith was not as lucky. In the accident, Smith slammed head-on into the outside wall as Horton flew over it. His car would skid along the wall before coming to rest on the apron at the bottom of the track.

Track medical personnel, some of whom were taken aback by Smith’s condition following the crash, quickly attended to him and immediately called for him to be helicoptered to a hospital in nearby Birmingham. There he was diagnosed with a basilar skull fracture – the same injury that would lead to Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

Fortunately for Smith, he was able to pull through after lingering in a coma for several days and eventually made a full recovery.

Back under green, the lead swapped between a host of drivers, but Earnhardt and Irvan, along with Kyle Petty, were still the key players up front.

At lap 134, the second scary incident of the day occurred, as Neil Bonnett and three others crashed on the frontstretch. Bonnett got the worst of the crash as his No. 31 Chevrolet wound up flying into the catchfence before coming to a rest back on the inside of the track. The catch fence was damaged enough where Bonnett made contact that the red flag was displayed for more than an hour so that it could be repaired.

The race was the first back in the cockpit for Bonnett, who had been on the sidelines since April 1990 due to injuries sustained in a crash at Darlington. During his time away, Bonnett served as a broadcaster and he combined his broadcast and driving duties in this race at Talladega, providing in-race updates to his colleagues up in the broadcast booth.

Bonnett would emerge from the crash without serious injury and finished out the day calling the race in the broadcast booth.

“I knew when it cleared the ground and it got quiet, I knew it went up,” said Bonnett. “The last thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was the grandstands. I said ‘Man, I don’t need to get up there.’ It’s bad enough to have an accident with some race drivers, we sure don’t need to get up in those grandstands.

“Since the accident that Bobby Allison had, every one of these race tracks has really emphasized (safety). You have to credit the people that own these tracks for building them up to hold them in there.”

With 49 laps to go, the race went back green with Irvan in the lead. He and Kyle Petty would swap the lead back and forth before Petty got the upper hand at lap 164. Petty still held the lead with three laps to go when Earnhardt came knocking once more.

Heading down the backstretch, Earnhardt and Irvan pulled out of the draft and were able to slingshot past Petty to take over the first and second spots. Despite his fall back to fourth place, Petty was not going to go down without a fight as he powered his way back to the front, pulling alongside Earnhardt on the final lap.

Petty’s move allowed Irvan to make it three-wide off of Turn 2 as they headed down the backstretch for the final time. While Petty faded, it was all Earnhardt and Irvan for the final half-lap.

Both drivers ran side-by-side all the way down the backstretch and though Turns 3 and 4, with neither giving an inch. As they entered the tri-oval on the frontstretch, it was clear that the race was going to come down to a drag race between the two.

As they crossed the finish, Earnhardt got the nose of his Chevrolet out front by a hair, streaking across the line by .005 seconds to take the victory.

Following Earnhardt and Irvan to the line was Mark Martin, Petty, and Dale Jarrett to round out the top-five.

“I don’t know,” Earnhardt said with a laugh when asked how he’d won the race. “Kyle looked like he got a little loose and I decided I’d better go on in front of him. I got in front of him and Ernie and Dale and the rest of them wanted to race us, so we were fortunate to beat them.

“I got side-by-side with Ernie and Mark got in there behind Ernie and was trying to push him. Kyle was behind me and I had to go back down the track to the bottom and suck off the side of Ernie’s car to beat him back to the line by inches.

“That’s all it takes.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.