1985 Carolina 500: Bonnett and 'The Bandit'

Neil Bonnett 1985

Both of Neil Bonnett's first and last wins for Junior Johnson came at Rockingham. (Photo: ISC Archives)


Just outside the main entrance of Rockingham Speedway, you’ll find a large boulder.

It’s not just any rock. Its surface tells the story of the days when what was known as North Carolina Motor Speedway played a role in NASCAR’s highest levels. The surface is engraved with the names of drivers who conquered “The Rock”, a nickname the track more than earned.

From the time that Curtis Turner won the inaugural American 500 in October, 1965, to the time the track held its final Cup race in February, 2004, Rockingham was host to a number of memorable races. The 1985 Carolina 500 was one of them.

Defending Cup series champion Terry Labonte took the pole in Billy Hagan’s Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet and led the opening 57 laps. Although he would lead the most laps, with 208, much of the attention at the front of the pack would involve Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant, who would be involved in a combined 20 lead changes.

It was Bonnett’s 33rd race behind the wheel of Junior Johnson’s No. 12 Budweiser Chevrolet. Bonnett watched teammate Darrell Waltrip take seven wins in the prior season while he went winless. The Hueytown, Ala., native had yet to win for Johnson, a statistic he definitely wanted to change.

Meanwhile, Gant felt like he had some unfinished business at “The Rock”. The previous fall, Gant swapped the lead with Bill Elliott three times on the final lap, but had to settle for a runner-up finish. Gant lost that race by 12 inches, so this race was an opportunity to make up for the heartbreaking loss.

Bonnett and Gant battled constantly for position over the final 50 laps, with Gant holding the lead when the white flag was displayed. Bonnett pushed Gant out of the groove in the final lap of the final turn and made his move. The two were nose to nose crossing under the checkered flag.

NASCAR official gave Bonnett the win by an official victory margin of eight inches, one of the closest in NASCAR history to that time prior to electronic timing and scoring.

“It’s been so long since I won one,” Bonnett said in Victory Lane after breaking a 34-race winning streak. “I was beginning to question myself. I wasn’t winning like I should have on this circuit.”

Gant didn’t share Bonnett’s feelings after his second straight runner up finish in Rockingham.

“Neil pushed me out of the way on the last lap,” Gant said. “He rooted me out of the way and took the bottom groove.”

It was Bonnett’s first win for Junior Johnson. They won races together before parting ways at the end of the 1986 season. Ironically, their last win together happened at the track that produced their first one, with Bonnett taking the Nationwise 500 at Rockingham in October 1986.

Gant would go on to win three times in 1985, and a total of 18 races in his 22-year career before retiring at the end of the 1994 season.

This week’s edition of MRN Flashback Friday turns its attention to the battle between Bonnett and “The Bandit.” Barney Hall and Mike Joy lead the MRN Radio coverage of the 1985 Warner W. Hodgdon Carolina 500 from Rockingham. You can hear the online stream of the race starting at Noon (ET) Friday, exclusively on MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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