It goes without saying that the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is one of NASCAR’s biggest Crown Jewel events, ranking up there with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Daytona 500. One of the main reasons for this is because Darlington Raceway is the sport’s first superspeedway. Before the grace of Daytona and the pageantry of Charlotte, NASCAR muscled hard, rough, and fast on Darlington’s egg-shaped oval.
With Darlington playing host to NASCAR’s annual throwback event, several teams and drivers are paying homage this year with different schemes paying tribute to the early part of the 1990s, which brought the dominance of Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Here are some memorable events in the Southern 500’s 1990s chapter.
1990 – Earnhardt, Elliott, and Geoff Bodine were the three fastest cars of the day; they combined to lead 286 of the 367 scheduled laps. Earnhardt would go on to win his third Southern 500 in four fall events, while Elliott faded back to fourth and Bodine to eighth. Ernie Irvan, who led 70 laps, would finish in second place, 4.19 seconds behind Earnhardt.
There were plenty of fireworks during the day, most notably when early in the event Ken Schrader and Morgan Shepherd made contact which sent Schrader’s No. 25 Chevrolet to the garage. Several laps later Schrader would get back on track and return the favor to Shepherd before being parked for the race. Shepherd would go on to finish 21st.
1991 – Harry Gant began his famous four-win streak in the Fall of ’91 when he won his second Southern 500, leading 152 laps and finishing 10.97 seconds ahead of runner-up Irvan. Schrader finished third and was the last car on the lead lap.
Davey Allison started on the pole and led 151 laps, but finished 12th, four laps off the pace. Gant’s ensuing winning streak was the first since 1987.
1992 – Credited as Darrell Waltrip’s 84th and final Cup win, the 1992 edition of this event originally looked to be in the hands of Allison, who was looking to become only the second driver to win the Winston Million coming into the weekend. Allison and Gant led a total of 163 laps as rain threatened the area. During a cycle of pit stops on Lap 292, several drivers opted to stay out. Allison’s Crew Chief Larry McReynolds sent a crew member to check on the weather forecast in the NASCAR hauler, only for that crew member to misinterpret the weather radar which led to Allison coming down pit road.
Waltrip stayed out, however, and was credited with the win after 298 laps while Allison was credited with fifth-place after starting sixth and leading 72 laps. Martin, Elliott, and Brett Bodine placed second, third, and fourth respectively.
1993 – Martin won the Southern 500 at Darlington. That’s a fact that doesn’t look impressive on paper. But it’s worth noting that Martin won the race without power steering, which is something else entirely since Darlington is such an unforgiving speedway.
Martin started fourth and led 178 laps, dueling most of the day with Earnhardt and his No. 3 Lumina. However, after leading 101 laps on the day, Earnhardt made hard contact with the wall and faded back to fourth in the final running order. Brett Bodine and Rusty Wallace finished second and third respectively. Irvan would go on to finish fifth in his first race in the No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford.
1994 – Although Schrader and Martin combined to lead 232 of the race’s 367 laps, engine failure would sideline both drivers, leaving Earnhardt and Elliott to battle for the race win.
Ultimately it was Elliott who took the win, leading 21 laps against Earnhardt’s 87 en route to the checkered flag. Shepherd, Ricky Rudd, and Sterling Marlin rounded out the top-five. It would be Elliott’s final win for Junior Johnson, as Elliott wouldn’t win again until the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2001.
One of the top notable finishers of the day was Kenny Wallace, who finished 11th while filling in for an injured Irvan in the No. 28 RYR Ford after the latter’s accident at Michigan International Speedway the month before. Irvan would make his return in the fall of 1995.
Although the upcoming Bojangles’ Southern 500 will be celebrating the early 90s’ era of NASCAR, the Southern 500’s very legacy is based off some of the sport’s greatest names and greatest battles since the speedway’s inception in 1950.
There’s a quote by none other than Earnhardt himself that perfectly sums up the allure of the Southern 500 and the place it holds in the sport:
“You never forget your first love, whether it’s a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And if you happen to be a race car driver, there’s no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway.”