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Curator's Corner / Hall of Famers

1980 Paydays, In The Black

The go-go 1980s saw big money flow into NASCAR, with a new name atop the leaderboard of earners.

The 1980s represented NASCAR’s fourth full decade of racing, and for the very first time, one of those decades ended without someone not named Petty taking home the most money.

Prize money grew rapidly in the 1980s, as six future Hall of Famers earned more than $5 million each, and the top driver on the money list-making nearly $10 million.

Here are the five NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees who earned the most purse money during the 1980s. (All stats courtesy of

Four of the five drivers listed here are represented in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s exhibit entitled: “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions,” which was curated by Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021).

A victory at Richmond helped propel Rusty Wallace to the 1989 premier series championship. Photo courtesy of Racing Photo Archives/Getty Images.

5. Rusty Wallace, $5,376,342

A member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2013, Rusty Wallace started and ended the 1980s on high notes, and got paid well for doing it. Wallace finished second in his premier series debut at Atlanta in 1980, and ended the decade by winning the 1989 championship. During this period, the Missouri native won a total of 16 races, including six in ’89, when he captured the title while driving for car owner Raymond Beadle.

Terry Labonte won his first of two championships in 1984. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

4. Terry Labonte, $5,800,369

Like the other four drivers on this list, Terry Labonte (2016) won a championship during the decade, which helped solidify his standing among the big-money drivers. Labonte’s title came in 1984, when he drove for Billy Hagan with sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines. He would win another title 12 years later with Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick (2017). Labonte won 10 races in the 1980s, including two during his championship season.

Darrell Waltrip is the career leader for victories at Bristol Motor Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

3. Darrell Waltrip, $8,698,139

One of only two drivers to win three championships in the 1980s, Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (2012), was almost unstoppable on short tracks, especially after joining forces with team owner Junior Johnson (2010) in 1981, when the team won their first of three championships in five years. Waltrip won a series-leading 57 races during the 1980s, including nine wins each at Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, and seven more at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

By winning The Winston Million, Bill Elliott made it rain. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/ CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images.

2. Bill Elliott, $8,945,275

Known by the nickname “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” Georgia native Bill Elliott (2015) didn’t run his first full season in the premier series until 1983, but he quickly made up for lost time. At his best at superspeedways like Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Elliott won 32 races in the 1980s, along with the 1988 championship. In 1985, Elliott won a career-best 11 races, capturing The Winston Million, a $1 million bonus for winning three of NASCAR’s four majors in a single year.

Legendary motorsports journalist Chris Economaki interviewed Dale Earnhardt after his 1987 victory at Richmond. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images.

1. Dale Earnhardt, $9,556,751

In the 1980s, Dale Earnhardt (2010) went from being a scruffy short-track racer from the mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, to the biggest star in NASCAR. A hero to millions for his blue-collar manner and his hard, unrelenting driving style, Earnhardt won 38 races and three premier series championships in the 1980s. The first came with car owner Rod Osterlund in 1980, then Earnhardt won championships driving for fellow Hall of Famer Richard Childress (2017) in 1986 and ’87. Earnhardt would add four more titles with Childress in the 1990s, giving “The Intimidator” a record-tying seven crowns.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.