The Legend of Million-Dollar Bill
by Tom Jensen August 31, 2020
This Week in NASCAR History was a busy one at The Track Too Tough to Tame.
September 1, 1985
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was responsible for many promotions and innovations from 1971 to 2003, when its Winston brand was the title sponsor of what was then called the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now premier series).
One of the biggest and boldest offerings was called the Winston Million, which had a simple premise: If any driver could win three of NASCAR’s four majors in the same year, they’d receive a $1 million bonus from the series. The major races then were the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The Winston Million was launched in 1985 and that first season unfolded in dramatic fashion, with Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015) winning the Daytona 500 in February and the Winston 500 at Talladega in early May. Elliott had a chance to capture the Winston Million at Charlotte later that month, but came up short. Although he led 81 of the 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, a variety of issues left Elliott 18th at the finish of the race, which was won by fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (2012).
That meant Elliott would have to wait more than three months for his second and final attempt at capturing the huge payday and the bragging rights that went with it. It also meant he’d have to win it at historic Darlington Raceway, a/k/a The Track Too Tough to Tame, where Elliott would be one of 11 Hall of Fame drivers in the field.
The pressure and the media attention were crushing. After the racers arrived at Darlington, armed police officers stood guard outside Elliott’s garage to keep the crowds away and let the team do its work preparing for a shot at $1 million.
The drama was intense all weekend. Elliott put the No. 9 Harry Melling-owned Ford Thunderbird on the pole at Darlington, qualifying at a speed of 156.641 mph. But he had plenty of challengers and few near-misses along the way.
In the Southern 500 Dale Earnhardt (2010) dominated early, leading a race-high 147 laps around the tight, egg-shaped Darlington track. But when Earnhardt spun out in Turn 2 to bring out a caution on lap 318 of the 367-lap race, Elliott was barely able to avoid hitting the out-of-control No. 3 Chevrolet.
South Carolina native Cale Yarborough (2012) then led, only to lose a power steering hose on his car, necessitating another caution on Lap 325. Despite losing his power steering, Yarborough hounded Elliott closely over the final 40 laps of the race, with Elliott ultimately prevailing by 0.60 seconds.
Elliott’s total Darlington earnings were $1,053,725, more than five times his take for winning the Daytona 500 earlier that year.
The money, of course, was great, but the relief was palpable.
“There was a good deal of pressure on the team all week, and there was pressure to keep the car together during the race,” said Elliott. “Anything could have happened. I could have run the car into the wall. But everything worked out.”
Elliott won that first Winston Million, earning himself the nickname, “Million-Dollar Bill.” He would be the only driver to win it until the final year of the program, 1997, when it was captured by a young racer named Jeff Gordon.
The rest of This Week in NASCAR History:
August 31, 1956
At South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway, a 0.500-mile dirt oval, Hall of Famer Curtis Turner (2016) won a 200-lap NASCAR Convertible Division race and with it the first-place purse of $650. The only other driver to finish on the lead lap was Turner’s teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly (2015). Both men were in factory Ford convertibles owned by Pete DePaolo. For the season, Turner won 22 Convertible Division races and finished second in points to Bob Welborn.
September 2, 1974
Hall of Fame driver Cale Yarborough (2012) and his team owner Junior Johnson (2010) got together in 1974 and enjoyed immediate success. Yarborough lapped the field at Darlington Raceway, winning the prestigious Southern 500 for the second year in a row and third time overall. In the race, Yarborough 159 of 367 laps, picking up $28,000 for himself and the team. Two years later, Yarborough and Johnson would win the first of three consecutive premier series championships together.
September 3, 2000
After a scary crash in practice, Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte (2020) recovered to win the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Driving a back-up Pontiac owned by fellow Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs (2020), Labonte started 37th and was running fifth when the final caution came out on Lap 321. Quick work by the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew got Labonte out of the pits first, as the track never went green again before rain cut the race from a scheduled 367 laps to 328. The winner’s purse was $198,180.
September 4, 1967
In the NASCAR record book, the single most dominant season in history belongs to Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010). “The King” won 27 races, including 10 in a row in 1967, with help from younger brother, Maurice (2014), cousin Dale Inman (2012), and the rest of their Petty Enterprises teammates. At the Southern 500 on Labor Day at Darlington Raceway, Petty drubbed the field, leading 345 of 364 laps to capture the $26,900 first-place prize money. Petty, in the midst of his 10-race winning streak, wouldn’t lose again until October 15, when he lost an engine in the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
September 5, 2010
In a rare Labor Day weekend visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) led 176 of 325 laps to capture the Emory Healthcare 500 and the $357,198 first-place purse that went with it. The victory was the first of two for the Stewart Haas Racing owner/driver in the 2010 season, the other coming later at Auto Club Speedway during NASCAR’s playoffs.
September 6, 1965
In the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (2011) set a NASCAR record that has never been challenged in 55 years and almost certainly never will be. Driving a Ford owned by Bondy Long, Jarrett won the Southern 500 by 14 laps over Hall of Famer Buddy Baker (2020). Attrition played a major role in the race, as just 15 of 44 cars were listed as still running at the end of the race. The winner’s purse was $21,060.