We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Previous installments: Toughest drivers
Top five greatest races
We started our season-long power slide through NASCAR’s 75th anniversary celebration with a look at some of the racers, so it feels only natural to upshift our focus toward the events they raced in — the greatest ever run by stock car racing’s premiere series. Whittling it down from 2,700 races to just five perfect events was no easy task. Then again, neither was the job of competing in these legendary showdowns, let alone being the racers who rolled into Victory Lane when they were over.
So, grab a camera and some trophy polish and read ahead as we present our picks for NASCAR’s five greatest races.
Honorable mention: 1950 Southern 500, Darlington Raceway
Labor Day weekend 1950 in the South Carolina Sandhills was only slightly less warm than the equator of the sun as 75 — yes, 75! — cars took the green flag and hammered their way into the first turn of NASCAR’s first-ever asphalt speedway, an egg-shaped oval plowed into peanut fields. The Strictly Stock division was in only its second season and had run only short tracks and almost exclusively on dirt. No one was ready for the 1.25-mile beast we now know as the Track Too Tough To Tame. Less than half the field finished the race and collectively popped so many tires that crewmen started stealing wheels off the vehicles of fans parked in the racetrack infield.
Hollywood stuntman Johnny “Madman” Mantz won by nine laps, having smartly bolted on a set of thick truck tires and then riding around the flat apron while his rivals ruptured their rubber rings blasting around the high groove. Was it a great race competition-wise? No. Was it the race that propelled NASCAR into its superspeedway future? Absolutely.
5. 1995 Goody’s 500, Bristol Motor Speedway
There are those who will argue that the Bristol night race run four years later — aka the night Dale Earnhardt rattled Terry Labonte’s cage — was better, but this event had more drama, involved the same pair of future NASCAR Hall of Famers and threw in a third for good measure. The rain-stuttered evening began when Earnhardt turned Rusty Wallace on the frontstretch. It ended with “The Intimidator” doing the same to Labonte, but “The Iceman” managed to hang on to his out-of-control Chevy and took the checkered flag with the entire hood mashed flat.
When Earnhardt pulled into the garage, he received a water bottle to the noggin and a lot of cuss words to his ears, via a still-seething Wallace. For a more extensive oral history of that night, read this feature that I wrote in 2015.
4. 1984 Winston 500, Talladega Superspeedway
When it comes to star power, it’s hard to beat the names found in any and every box score of the 1984 Cup Series season. But with all due respect to the more famous July Fourth Firecracker 400 showdown between Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough attended by Ronald Reagan, that was a bad race with a great finish. The event held on May 6 at Talladega involved more legends and a lot more action.
There were a mind-bending 75 lead changes, a record that stood for 26 years. The top six finishers were Yarborough, Harry Gant, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and Petty. All but one of them are already in the NASCAR Hall and the lone absentee, Gant, is a nominee this year. By the way, how wild was Talladega back then? The next race later that summer, with 68 lead changes among 16 drivers and won by Earnhardt, might have been better.
3. 2003 Dodge Dealers 400, Darlington Raceway
The best races are the ones that create the most tension — like a rubber band pulled slowly over the course of four hours, with all of us left to wonder when it will finally snap.
In March 2003, Kurt Busch was just beginning to step into his Darth Vader persona and one year away from his thrilling Cup Series title. Meanwhile, Ricky Craven had managed to battle his way back from the brink of career extinction, having miraculously recovered from a frightening series of concussions to pilot Cal Wells’ Tide Ride. Their duel over the final laps of a typically tough Darlington afternoon is still the most YouTube-able moment of NASCAR’s modern era, won by Craven by a record .002 seconds as they banged doors all the way down the frontstretch and under the checkered flag. The finish was so awesome that the perpetually short-fused Busch wasn’t even mad about it, showing up in Victory Lane to celebrate with Craven.
2. 1979 Daytona 500
If you track down the video of this race, do yourself a favor and fast-forward to the last five laps. The 195 circuits before it were a sloppy, rainy mess, including an early wreck involving Bobby Allison.
On the final lap, when Yarborough attempted the backstretch slingshot move that everyone knew was coming, the other Allison, Donnie, moved to block it. They ended up plowing the third-turn wall and sliding into the infield grass, and Cale climbed out to confront Donnie but found an angry Bobby instead, having pulled over to check on his brother. Those three commenced to beating on each other live on CBS, which was televising the Daytona 500 live flag to flag for the first time, with commentator Ken Squier famously shouting, “There’s a fight!”
As America watched the brawl, few realized there had been a wild finish. A.J. Foyt, who’d been third and inherited the lead, slowed his car when he saw the wreck, allowing Petty to slide by to nab his sixth Daytona 500 win, followed closely by Darrell Waltrip. Star power, a wreck, a fight, all on live TV? “Greatest” isn’t a strong enough word for what this day was.
1. 1992 Hooters 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway
But our pick for the greatest of them all isn’t a season-opening Daytona 500, but rather a season-ending finale that had every fan on the edge of their seats and digging through the kitchen junk drawer looking for a calculator.
First, it was Petty’s final race, the end of a season-long retirement celebration that just that weekend had sold out the brand-new Georgia Dome for a Petty tribute concert. Second, it was Jeff Gordon’s Cup Series debut, the first of his 805 starts that produced 93 wins, four championships and a Hall of Fame career.
The story of the day, though, was the three-man title fight between Davey Allison, “Underdog” Alan Kulwicki and home-state hero Bill Elliott. All three took turns up front, but in the end, Kulwicki’s strategy won him the title, even as Elliott won the race. As both men celebrated, Petty did a final parade lap to thunderous applause. Spoiler alert: I have a feeling this isn’t the last time you’ll be reading about this day …