1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Recap

New NASCAR guidelines for the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup season resulted in cars that twitched frighteningly at high speeds and had to be stabilized with large spoilers. The Daytona 500 featured 49 lead changes, and set the tone for the rest of the exciting 1981 campaign. Over the course of the 31-race season in 1981, fans witnessed 772 lead changes -- a mark that still stands despite the fact that five races have been added to the annual schedule. A record five races were also determined by a last-lap pass, another standard that still stands.

The article that follows will trace the thrilling events of the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup campaign, from season highlights to final standings -- with plenty of photos to capture the action.

January 17, 1981

In light of new guidelines requiring the use of downsized cars (110-inch wheelbase vs. the older 115-inch wheelbase), Richard Petty tests a Dodge Mirada at Daytona. The car is unable to run competitive speeds, so Petty gives up any idea of returning to the Chrysler fold.

NASCAR Image Gallery

 Richard Petty's #43 Buick chases the fleet #28 Pontiac LeMans of Bobby Allison in the 1981 Daytona 500.
Richard Petty's #43 Buick chases the fleet #28 Pontiac LeMans of Bobby Allison in the Daytona 500. The King of stock car racing was seemingly out of the hunt late in the race, running a distant fifth with 25 laps remaining. Petty snookered the field, however, by making a splash-and-go stop during his final visit to the pits. Petty got back onto the track ahead of the leaders, all of whom took tires on their final pit stop, and wheeled his #43 Buick to victory. See more pictures of NASCAR.

February 15, 1981: Daytona 500

Richard Petty wins his record seventh Daytona 500. Petty's longtime crew chief Dale Inman quits two days later to accept a job with the Rod Osterlund/Dale Earnhardt team.

March 1, 1981: Carolina 500

Darrell Waltrip drives the Junior Johnson Buick to win Rocking­ham's Carolina 500. Waltrip has won two of his first four starts with the highly regarded Johnson team.

April 5, 1981

Richard Petty outlasts Dave Marcis to score his 15th career win at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Marcis starts on the pole and leads 123 laps, but falls off the pace late when he runs out of tires.

Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip occupy the front row at the start of the Feb. 15, 1981 Daytona 500.
Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip occupy the front row at the start of the Feb. 15 Daytona 500. Allison's Ranier Racing Team brought a sleek Pontiac LeMans to Daytona, which proved to have a considerable aerodynamic advantage over virtually every other make of car in the field. Allison had the best car in the 23rd running of The Great American Race, but finished second to Richard Petty, who prevailed thanks to superior pit stop strategy.

April 26, 1981: Virginia 500

Rookie Morgan Shepherd drives to an upset win in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville, giving the Pontiac nameplate its first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National win since 1963.

May 3, 1981: Winston 500

Bobby Allison drives a Harry Ranier-owned Buick Regal to victory in the Winston 500 at Talladega for his second win of the season. The Ranier-Allison team was forced to switch from the Pontiac LeMans to the Buick when NASCAR rules changes made the LeMans uncompetitive.

May 17, 1981: Mason-Dixon 500

Jody Ridley drives the Junie Donlavey Ford to a surprise win in the Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover. It is the first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National win for Ridley and team owner Junie Donlavey, who has been fielding cars since 1950. Controversy erupts due to a "scoring communications difficulty" that may have taken the victory away from Bobby Allison.

Tim Richmond, in Kennie Childers' #12 Buick, races Richard Petty during the July 4, 1981 Daytona Firecracker 400.
Tim Richmond, at the wheel of Kennie Childers' #12 Buick, races Richard Petty through a turn during the July 4 Daytona Firecracker 400. Richmond was a whiz in USAC Indy Car com­petition, winning the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year prize in 1980. Later that year, he made his NASCAR Winston Cup debut, then became a candidate for Rookie of the Year in 1981. In the July 4 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Richmond finished 15th.

June 7, 1981

Benny Parsons edges Dale Earnhardt to win at Texas World Speedway. Only 18,000 spectators turn out to watch the race at the financially troubled two-mile track.

June 21, 1981

Bobby Allison rockets from seventh to first on the final green-flag lap to win at Michigan International Speedway. Ten cars were involved in the final dash when Kyle Petty blew an engine, oiling down the second turn. The lead cars spun out, but Allison snaked his way through the carnage.

July 11, 1981: Busch Nashville 420

Darrell Waltrip dominates the Busch Nashville 420 at the Fairgrounds Raceway. Mark Martin starts on the pole in his third NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National start and finishes 11th.

Bobby Allison (#28) pairs up with #27 Cale Yarborough in a battle for the lead in the 1981 Firecracker 400.
Number 28 Bobby Allison pairs up with #27 Cale Yarborough in a frantic battle for the lead in the Firecracker 400. Yarborough went on to win in the M.C. Anderson/ Valvoline Buick. Allison, whose Ranier Racing team picked up the Hardee's sponsorship in May, had engine problems in the 400-miler and finished 28th.

August 2, 1981: Talladega 500

Rookie Ron Bouchard passes Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in the final stretch to win the Talladega 500. The lead cars finish three-abreast as Bouchard wins in his 11th career start.

August 16, 1981

Richard Petty leads a pack of seven cars to the finish line to win at Michigan. Dale Earnhardt, in his first start with the Richard Childress team, finishes ninth.

September 20, 1981

Neil Bonnett wins at Dover as runner-up Darrell Waltrip takes a narrow lead in the champion­ship points chase.

Buddy Baker (#1) battles with Darrell Waltrip in the Twin 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona on Feb. 12, 1981.
Buddy Baker, driving Hoss Ellington's #1 Oldsmobile, dices it out with Darrell Waltrip in the second Twin 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona on Feb. 12. Waltrip won the event by passing Benny Parsons on the apron near the finish line. The outcome was controversial because Parsons had to let up and move up the track or risk a multicar crash. Baker finished third. The Twin 125 featured a record 25 official lead changes, a mark that still stands today.

November 22, 1981

Bobby Allison wins the season finale at Riverside as Darrell Waltrip's sixth-place finish clinches his first NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championship.

Continue on to the next section to see the final standings of the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup season.

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