NASCAR Memories: Neil Bonnett


Few pieces of NASCAR folklore are as popular as the infamous “Alabama Gang,” a group of NASCAR pioneers that hailed from the titular state south of the Mason-Dixon line. With the most famous of the members being the Allison clan of Bobby, Donnie, and later Bobby’s son Davey, the gang also included Red Farmer and Neil Bonnett.

Bonnett, who got his start working on Bobby’s race team, attempted two Sprint Cup races in 1973 before making his debut in 1974 at Talladega driving a Charlie Roberts Chevrolet. He lasted 51 laps before an oil line dropped him to 45th at the end of the day. He tried another start at Talladega later that year as a teammate to Bobby, before an engine failure left him 39th at the end of the day.

Neil Bonnett’s 1985 season proved to be his most successful, as two wins and 18 top-10s placed him fourth in points at season’s end. Photo by Ted Van Pelt/Wiki Commons

It wasn’t until 1977 that Bonnett won his first race, at Richmond in the third race of the season driving a Jim Stacy Dodge. Bonnett swept Richmond that season, but it took joining Wood Brothers Racing in 1979 that the results really started to come in. He won three times in ’79 (Dover, Daytona, Atlanta). He won six more times before switching to RahMoc Racing in 1983.

Bonnett won twice in 1983, including his second straight 600-mile win at Charlotte as well as the Fall Atlanta event. He would ultimately earn 10 top-fives and 17 top-10s to go along with four poles in ’83, earning a sixth-place points finish.

From 1984 to 1986, Bonnett drove the No. 12 Budweiser Chevrolet for Junior Johnson, earning three wins, 24 top-fives, and 44 top-10s in three seasons. In 1987 he returned to RahMoc, where he earned his last two wins, plus an exhibition event in Australia.

After returning to Wood Brothers, Bonnett suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash at Darlington. When he recovered from his injuries, he took to the broadcast booth calling races for TNN, TBS, and and CBS.

Two years after his Darlington crash, he returned to driving by testing cars for longtime friend Dale Earnhardt and his car owner Richard Childress. This only served to fuel Bonnett’s desire to return to racing, and in 1993 he made his racing return driving as a teammate to Earnhardt in the No. 31 Lumina. His day ended when he flipped into the catch fence. Thankfully, he emerged uninjured from the crash.

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His final Cup start came in the season finale at Atlanta as a buffer for Earnhardt, who was looking to clinch his sixth championship. He dropped out of the race after three laps, assuring Earnhardt the points he needed to win the title. He left Childress after the ’93 season.

During the offseason, Bonnett aligned with car owner James Finch for the 1994 Cup season. With sponsorship from Country Time Lemonade for the first six races of the season, the duo of Finch and Bonnett were optimistic about ’94. However, in the first weekend of practice for the Daytona 500 Bonnett tragically perished in an accident in the fourth turn. That was a black weekend for NASCAR, as Rookie of the Year candidate Rodney Orr was also killed in an accident in practice.

Bonnett’s passing left a huge void in the sport, as NASCAR was still reeling from the death’s of Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison the year before. Still, Bonnett left an impact that is felt to this day.

Share and comment below with your favorite Bonnett memories.

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