With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed to Dover to take on the Monster Mile this weekend, “Throwback Thursday Theater” is upon us once again and in this week’s edition, we will take a look back at a race at Dover that was intriguing until the end and gave a legendary car owner his first and only win in the Cup Series – the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500.
In the early eighties, Dover International Speedway was still as treacherous as it is today, except for the fact that the track was asphalt instead of concrete and the race length was 500 miles instead of 400. While not as much of an issue these days with the longevity built into the engines of today, the 500 mile torture test at Dover played havoc with several drivers throughout the Mason-Dixon 500.
David Pearson scored the pole and led the first 41 laps, which included the only two cautions of the day (multi-car wrecks on lap 2 and lap 18). While Pearson looked strong in those early laps, his day would be done after that first stint out front due to his engine expiring.
With Pearson done for the day, Neil Bonnett took over the lead and looked to be the man to beat, leading 404 of the next 418 laps, while Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty led the other 14 laps. The absolute domination by Bonnett gave him a two lap lead on second place Yarborough, but with 41 laps left things started to go haywire. Bonnett’s engine blew sending him to the pits as his race win that was all but certain was taken away from him. Undoubtedly heartbroken over seeing the win slip from his grasp, Bonnett exited his car and put his head on the roof, knowing his race was over.
As Bonnett’s engine had ended his day, the lead transferred to second place Yarborough, who like Bonnett, had a two-lap lead on Jody Ridley, a Georgia short-track ace that was driving the legendary No. 90 for car owner Junie Donlavey, who moved to second place behind Yarborough.
The race looked to be Yarborough’s to lose and just like the two leaders before him that had suffered engine woes, the same gremlin struck Yarborough with 20 laps remaining to set Ridley and Donlavey up for their first and what would turn out to be their only win in the Cup Series. With only points leader Bobby Allison on the same lap as him, Ridley drove his heart out over the last 20 laps, beating Allison to the line by 22 seconds.
“I’m just proud for Junie, he’s worked so hard all these years. It’s a strictly volunteer team and they did a super job today. I just don’t know what to say, I really don’t,” said Ridley. “We weren’t the fastest car today, but we just kept plugging along and sooner or later we were going to win one.”
“By far this has to be the biggest win in my career. I’ve won no telling how many races, but nothing compares to this.”
While the race win was popular throughout the garage area, it was not without some controversy. In those days, the digital timing and scoring that is used today was not around, meaning each team had a scorer in the press box to keep tabs on their assigned team. Allison’s scorer was certain that they were a lap ahead of Ridley, but after reviewing the tapes from both teams, NASCAR determined that both cars were on the same lap and Ridley would be declared the winner.
Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images