News & Media

Aumann: Nashville went out with a bang, controversy in '84

August 05, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Bonnett went to Victory Lane, Waltrip got the trophy in penultimate Cup race

The decision this week by parent company Dover Motorsports Inc. to abandon its Nashville Superspeedway race dates for 2012 may put a permanent end to a relationship between NASCAR and the Music City that extended back to 1958.

It also brings to mind one of the most confusing finishes in Cup history, in the next-to-last Cup race run at Nashville Raceway. In the 1984 Coors 420, Darrell Waltrip had to watch Neil Bonnett receive the trophy and the victory celebration on Saturday night before he was finally credited with the win two days later.

The old fairgrounds was a five-eighths mile, with the banking in the corners changed from 35 to 18 degrees in 1972. Waltrip had been racing there since the late '60s and was a two-time track champion. His first Cup victory came there in 1975, when he drove his own No. 17 Terminal Transport Chevrolet to a two-lap win in front of Benny Parsons and an $8,000 payday.

By 1984, NASCAR officials felt they had outgrown the facility, which could hold about 20,000 fans when the grandstands were packed to capacity. And when two management groups began bickering over control of the track, the folks in Daytona Beach simply pulled up stakes and moved on.

But Nashville Raceway went out with a bang -- and quite a bit of controversy -- in May of 1984, in a frantic 10-lap finish that saw Bonnett spin out while in the lead, only to get fresh tires and race his way back into what appeared to be the victory when the checkered fell.

Driving as teammates for owner Junior Johnson, Waltrip and Bonnett were in identically painted red and white Budweiser cars. Waltrip won the pole, but Bonnett -- who started 15th -- quickly asserted himself up front, leading much of the second half of the race.

However, Bonnett spun with 10 laps to go and was forced to pit under the ensuing caution, handing the lead to Geoff Bodine. But Bodine was low on fuel and came to the pits four laps later for a splash and go, which put Waltrip -- who decided to gamble and stay out on older tires -- in front.

With just six cars on the lead lap, Bonnett was able to get back to Waltrip's bumper as the two raced to the white flag. But about that time, Kyle Petty set off a three-car crash on the backstraight, which caused the flagman to throw both the white and the yellow flag simultaneously.

Waltrip saw that and slowed, but Bonnett didn't. Bonnett avoided the carnage on the backstretch and came around to cross the start/finish line first, with Waltrip in his rearview mirror.

NASCAR officials waved Bonnett to Victory Lane, leaving Waltrip confused and angry.

"We were not racing to the line," Waltrip said. "The white flag and the caution came out together. I was in the lead and the race was over.

"When the white and caution come out together, you don't pass; you don't race. I couldn't see ... I didn't know he was beside me. It was a helluva wreck back there. This race is ludicrous."

At the time, the rules allowed drivers to race back to the caution. And with one lap remaining, Bonnett assumed that was the case in this instance.

"I really didn't know what was going on," Bonnett said. "I saw the white and the yellow flags go out when I came out of the fourth turn on the 419th lap. I wasn't going to back out on the gas and have them tell me later I could have won the race.

"All I knew was that I had to get up front ... I'll leave it up to their judgment."

Richard Petty, the all-time leader with nine Nashville victories, sided with Waltrip.

"That's the first time in 25 years of racing I've ever seen one like that," Petty said. "I've always thought that when they throw the caution, that means no more racing. When I saw the yellow, I thought the race was over. So did Darrell, I guess."

Waltrip immediately paid the $200 to file a protest, and after reviewing the decision, NASCAR director Dick Beaty on Monday reversed the decision, saying the caution had come out before either driver was on the final lap, and therefore the race was technically over.

"In this case, the caution flag was displayed before the leaders reached the start/finish line and not 'during the white flag lap' as we initially ruled," Beatty said in a release.

"The final lap should have been run under a cautious pace because of the yellow flag conditions, and each car should have held the same position at the checkered flag that it did as it took the yellow flag to complete the 419th lap."

Bodine was credited with third. And when the series returned in July, Bodine held off Waltrip by a car-length to win what turned out to be the final Cup race held in Nashville.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.