By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway has always been a special race for those in NASCAR, with a win in the 500-mile slugfest on the track “Too Tough to Tame” residing on the bucket list for nearly every driver and team that has ever turned a lap around the 1.366-mile oval.
Entering the 1985 edition of the Southern 500, the pressure of winning at the storied track was ratcheted up even more for Bill Elliott, as a $1 million payday awaited him at the end of the race should he be the first to take the checkered flag.
Winston, the title sponsor of the Cup Series, put up the $1 million prize to any driver that could win at least three of the four crown jewel races on the schedule: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at Talladega, Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Elliott won at Daytona and Talladega, but fell short at Charlotte, making it an all or nothing race for him and the No. 9 team at Darlington.
Things got off to a great start for Elliott, as he captured the pole, with fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson starting alongside, not to mention that Elliott had won at Darlington once already in 1985, taking home the win in the TranSouth 500 back in April of that year.
Elliott led the first 14 laps before giving up the lead to Dale Earnhardt, with a handful of other drivers taking turns at the front of the field before Elliott reclaimed the lead at lap 63 and kept his Ford in the top spot for another 38 circuits.
Despite leading 52 of the first 100 laps, Elliott faded back in the pack for the majority of the middle portion of the race, which saw Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Ron Bouchard, and Cale Yarborough all battling for the lead at one point or another.
With Yarborough out front at lap 318, disaster nearly struck for Elliott as Earnhardt spun in Turn 2 and the drifted back down the track in the path of Elliott’s oncoming car. Thanks to some evasive driving on Elliott’s part, he was able to maneuver out of the way of Earnhardt’s car and continue in the race.
Once the race went back green, it was Elliott and Yarborough that waged war at the front of the field, battling for the race lead, but it didn’t last long as smoke started billowing out of Yarborough’s Ford off of Turn 4. Yarborough limped back to pit road to the attention of his crew, where they discovered that the power steering hose was the culprit.
”He just blew a power steering hose and they had to plug the thing off,” said Yarborough’s car owner, Harry Ranier. “Cale’s driving against the pump right now, so I don’t know whether he can drive the car and be competitive or not.
“The car is running fine. It’s just that he doesn’t have any power steering.”
After repairs, Yarborough returned to the race, with Elliott taking over the race lead with 44 laps to go.
With his two biggest challengers out of the way, it was all Elliott from that point on as he would not sacrifice the lead over the final 60 miles to take the checkered flag and bank his $1 million bonus. The Darlington win marked Elliott’s 10th win of an 11-win season.
Yarborough rebounded to finish second, with Geoff Bodine in third as the only drivers on the lead lap.
“I can’t believe it,” Elliott said in victory lane. “I just had to keep my cool and do what I always do and it worked out…I drove my tail off all day long. The car just wasn’t right, things just kept happening and it worked out my way.
“When Winston put the money up last November or December, I couldn’t believe that I could be the one to be able to get it.”