That’s especially true for the track’s first race of the year – the Winston 500 in the early years and the Aaron’s 499 today.
From the day Donnie Allison got the first of the Woods five Talladega wins in the 1971 Winston 500 to Trevor Bayne’s eighth-place finish in the 499 last May, the Wood Brothers team seems to regularly find their way to the front of the giant Talladega pack in the track’s first race each year.
David Pearson, who took the Woods to Victory Lane all over America, could work his magic at Talladega too.
From 1972-1974, he swept the spring races at Talladega. His win 40 years ago especially stands out for the events that took place that afternoon.
Just a week after Pearson drove a Wood Brothers Mercury designed for superspeedway competition to a surprise home-track victory for the Woods at Martinsville Speedway, he qualified the No. 21 Mercury on the outside pole at Talladega. Buddy Baker, who later would drive for the Woods, was the top qualifier.
Behind the lead duo were 58 other drivers, comprising the largest starting field ever for a modern-day Sprint Cup race. (Other Talladega races in that era had 50 drivers in the starting field.)
Baker took the lead on the initial start, and Pearson, the sly Silver Fox, was content to ride in second-place in the early going.
On Lap 10, Ramo Stott’s Mercury blew an engine, triggering a major crash on the backstretch.
Eddie Wood, one of the co-owners of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion, was working in the pit area that day back in 1973.
“We didn’t have radios, and there was no TV, so you really didn’t know what was happening on the backstretch,” he said. “As the cars went down the backstretch, it got quiet.”
Wood and his fellow crewmembers could only look toward Turn Four and hope their No. 21 Mercury eventually would appear.
“I remember seeing Pearson come into sight, him and the 09 car,” Wood said. “They came back around, and then some of the others wrecked the second time around, there was such a mess on the backstretch.”
All told, 21 drivers were involved in the crash with 19 cars too damaged to continue.
Pearson pitted during the caution period brought about by the crash, turning the lead over to the No. 09 Ford driven by Charles Barrett of Cleveland, Ga. Barrett led from Lap 24-36. It was the first time that his car owner, the late George Elliott, ever saw one of his cars lead a Cup race.
Barrett’s career was cut short by a highway crash, and two years later Elliott, one of the most loyal supporters ever of the Blue Oval brand, put his youngest son behind the wheel.
Bill Elliott went on to deliver 40 Cup victories for Ford along with the 1988 championship, and in addition, he wound up driving the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion from 2007-2010.
Barrett’s lead was short-lived, as he ran over debris from the crash and cut a tire. His ensuing pit stop gave the lead to J.D. McDuffie. But the independents and journeyman drivers who avoided the crash and shared time in the spotlight soon found themselves chasing Pearson.
The Silver Fox dominated the remainder of the race, leading 111 of 188 laps and was a lap ahead of runner-up Donnie Allison at the finish. For Eddie Wood, the memories from decades ago are made more special by the fact that 40 years later his team’s Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is still considered a legitimate contender for the win at Talladega.
In its most recent run at Talladega last fall, Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, took the No. 21 Fusion to the lead for five laps, made up a lost lap and was running fourth with four laps to go before his fuel-pressure gauge began fluctuating, sending him to pit road and an eventual 21st-place finish.
This time around, crew chief Donnie Wingo and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew have prepared a new 2013 Ford Fusion, and Wood said it has all the signs of being another front-runner.
“It blew some good numbers in the wind tunnel, and we tested it two weeks ago at Daytona,” Wood said. “We’re really happy with it.”
Qualifying for the Aaron’s 499 is set for Saturday, May 4, at 12:10 p.m. Eastern Time with the race getting the green flag just after 1 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on FOX.