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Was Bill Elliott SCREWED by the System in 1985?

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What’s Happening?

Many feel William Byron was screwed out of a Championship in 2023 because of the Playoff format, but he is not the only driver. Bill Elliott enjoyed his best statistical season in 1985, but he was not holding up the Winston Cup at the end of the season. What happened?

You Need to Know:

  • Bill Elliott was poised for a big season in 1985. He had finally established himself in NASCAR, and the new 1985 NASCAR Ford Thunderbird was the perfect car for Elliott.
  • Elliott went on to win 11 races and 11 poles in 1985 with an average starting position of 4.9. He also recorded 16 top-5s and 18 top-10s in 28 races.
  • Unfortunately, that was not enough to win the Winston Cup. What happened to Bill Elliott late in the year, and why did he fail to win a Championship?

Before 1985 Began

After nearly a decade of struggling and running part-time, Bill Elliott had finally established himself in NASCAR. He won his first race in 1983 and finished 3rd in the points. He followed that up in 1984 with 24 top-10 finishes in 30 races, 3 wins, 4 poles, and another third-place points finish. With the help of his brother and legendary engine builder, Ernie Elliott, Bill seemed poised for a great run in 1985.

1985 was also a big year for Ford. In the early 1980s, the new NASCAR Ford Thunderbird was nicknamed the “Boxy Bird” because of its poor aerodynamic qualities. However, it slowly improved with Cale Yarborough hitting 200 mph in 1983 Daytona 500 qualifying before crashing out on the second lap.

Even though Yarborough’s Thunderbird did not compete in the race, Ford was on to something. In 1985, they debuted a slicker, more aerodynamic Thunderbird. Elliott took full advantage.

Early Flashes and Mid-Season Dominance

In his iconic Coors number 9 Ford Thunderbird, Bill Elliott burst onto the scene at Daytona in February. He won the pole at a record 205.114 miles per hour. Then he won his 50-lap qualifying race by 37 SECONDS! On race day, he was untouchable, leading 136 laps and winning.

His domination continued throughout the first 20 races of the season. He won 10 of them, and his longest losing streak over that time was 2 races. Of those 10 wins, 9 of them came on tracks larger than 1.0 miles in length. Dover in the spring was the only exception, and that track acts more like a superspeedway than a short track.

He also won 10 poles on the same types of tracks. This included 7 poles in 10 races over the summer stretch. On the big tracks, Elliott was simply unbeatable.

His most impressive win came at Talladega in the spring. He pitted early in the race for a mechanical failure, and he fell 2 laps down. The first 159 laps of the race ran caution-free, but Elliott made up all of that distance UNDER GREEN. He was back in the lead by lap 145, and he went on to win.

His crowning achievement was at the Southern 500 in Darlington on Labor Day. Winston began the new “Winston Million” program. If a driver could win 3 of the 4 Crown Jewel events, Daytona 500, Winston 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500, Winston would award them $1 million.

Elliott was not exceptionally dominant that day, but, he still won the race leading 100 laps. He also had a 206-point lead in the points standings with only 8 races to go. The Championship seemed to be his, but…

Late Season Slump and a Challenger Emerges

After the Southern 500 win, Elliott hit a snag. In the next four races at Richmond, Dover, Martinsville, and North Wilkesboro, he did not finish better than 12th. He finished 20th or worse twice in that span.

Meanwhile, a new challenger emerged, Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip was the dominant NASCAR Cup Series driver of the early 1980s, but, in 1985, he had only 1 win to his credit in the first 20 races. Still, 12 top-5 finishes kept him in the hunt. While Elliott floundered, Waltrip pounced.

Waltrip finished in the top-2 three times in that four race including a win at Richmond. He took a slim, 30-point lead into the final 4 races of the season.

Both drivers traded blows over the next three races. Waltrip won at Rockingham, and Elliott won his 11th race of the season at Atlanta. It was Waltrip over Elliott by 20 points heading into the season finale at Riverside.

Riverside was where Elliott won his first career race in 1983. It seemed like the perfect place for Elliott to win his first Cup Series Championship. Unfortunately, a faulty part did him in.

Elliott qualified 5th with his title rival Darrell Waltrip qualifying 3rd. Only 6 laps into the race, Elliott’s gearshift lever broke, and he lost 1st and 2nd gear. The team spent 23 laps trying to fix it, and that was all. Elliott admitted to The New York Times after the race that he would likely not have beaten Waltrip anyway, because, “Twenty points is a lot to make up in one race.” Still, winning 11 races and not winning the Championship raises many eyebrows to this day.

What Happened?

In 1985, the Championship was decided by the old Winston Cup points system. Under that system, race winners would get 175 points, then the points were awarded in decreasing order in 5, then 4, then 3 points increments. (170 for 2nd, 165 for 3rd,…37 for 42nd). The driver also got 5 bonus points for leading 1 lap in a race and 5 bonus points for leading the most laps in a race. Overall, the maximum a winner could get in 1985 was 185 points.

This meant that wins were not as valuable in this points system as they are today. If a driver finished 2nd, but they led the most laps, they would get the same amount of points as the winner, 180. Winning the races was not the name of the game, it was consistent finishes.

Elliott had 11 wins, but if he was not winning, he was often running outside of the top 10. Of the 17 races Elliott did not win, 10 of them were finishes outside of the top 10.

On the other hand, Waltrip was remarkably consistent. He only won 3 races, but, he had more top-5s (18) and top-10s (21) than Elliott.

Many debated during this era whether or not wins meant enough. In 1984, Darrell Waltrip, ironically enough, finished 5th in the standings despite winning the most races, 7. He had this to say about the system that year.

If being number 1 in all categories doesn’t make yout he Champion or the number 1 driver in the sport, then why keep score?

Darrell Waltrip

*The Waltrip interview is found in this Brock Beard video below.

People often forget how controversial the old points system was, and how people criticized it for not rewarding wins enough. Ultimately, it was this point system that rewarded Waltrip with a Championship instead of Elliott.

Why did NASCAR end up with the “Win and You’re In” Playoff system they have now? It was because of seasons like this where drivers won a boatload of races but not the Championship.

Was he screwed? It can be argued that the points system did not reward Elliott’s wins enough. However, only Elliott and his team can be blamed for the late-season slump.

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