Most commonly rated among the best are: the 1976 Daytona 500, where David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed in the final turn, with Pearson limping to victory; the 1959 Daytona 500, with Lee Petty declared the victor three days later on the basis of film footage; and the 1991 DeVilbiss 400 at Michigan, when Dale Jarrett scored his first Winston Cup win by less than 6 inches over Davey Allison.
In the opinion of some, the best finish ever didn’t occur in the Winston Cup ranks, but in a lower division ... right here at tiny Martinsville Speedway.
What is now called the Winston Cup Series is not NASCAR’s oldest form of racing. NASCAR first put its stamp on the Modified class in 1948, a year before it launched the Strictly Stock division that is now Winston Cup.
In 1981, the Modified half of the Dogwood 500 Classic produced an ending that still gives Martinsville Speedway officials goosebumps the size of manhole covers.
“You can talk Pearson-Petty at Daytona all you want,” said Dick Thompson, Martinsville’s publicist since 1966, “but there’s no better finish than that one” in ’81 involving Richie Evans and Geoff Bodine.
Bodine had won the 250-lap Busch Grand National half of the Dogwood Classic, and was the polesitter for the Modified portion of the show. He had his sights set on joining Ray Hendrick and Paul Radford as the only drivers to sweep the Classic, and had a car strong enough to lead 231 of the 250 laps of the Modified finale.
“I remember it just like it was last weekend,” said Bodine, the only driver to win at Martinsville in the Modified, Busch, and Winston Cup divisions. “That was a wild race, not just a wild finish.”
Evans and Bodine, a pair of New Yorkers, put on a show that kept the predominately Southern crowd on its feet most of the afternoon. At that time, teams were allowed to mate any engine with any body style, and both drivers were piloting Ford Pintos powered by Chevrolet engines of about 480 cubic inches.
Evans grabbed the lead once after spinning Bodine, only to have Bodine take it back. Bodine was in front with only two laps to go when car co-owner Billy Taylor radioed him with a simple message: “Don’t let Richie underneath you.”
That proved easier said than done in the heat of battle. Bodine remembers driving as deep into Turn Three as he could, but Evans dove deeper, and a well-placed nudge pushed Bodine aside. Evans charged out of Turn Four to see the white flag waving, signifying that the final lap was all that remained.
“He was quite a ways ahead of me -- an impossible distance to make up in one lap, but I wasn’t thinking that. I wasn’t thinking, really -- I was seeing red,” Bodine said. “I really wanted to win both races in one day and was in position to do that. I was pretty mad.”
Bodine flattened the throttle to the floorboard coming off the second turn, and somehow reeled Evans in between the third and fourth corners. Bodine repaid the earlier shove with one of his own, and Evans’ Pinto clawed for traction as his car slid sideways.
“Unfortunately for me, I was thinking again then,” Bodine said. “I didn’t want to wreck him, just get him sideways and pass him. That was the wrong thought. I should have spun him out, but I let him go because I just knew I had him.
“I was driving around him and thought I was going to get to the finish line first. There’s a close-up picture that shows him getting a handful of steering wheel and turning it all the way to the right. His right front tire hit my left front tire and put me into the wall.”
Evans didn’t get away clean -- his car catapulted over the hood of Bodine’s and slammed into the wall, too. Parts from both cars rained in every direction, but Evans’ car, riding the wall on its left-side tires and minus its right-front wheel, somehow limped across the finish line first. Bodine’s car spun to the left, crossed the stripe, and smashed into the inside wall.
Jerry Cook, a six-time Modified national champion, was about 100 yards behind as Evans and Bodine collided. His crew screamed over the radio to warn of a crash, but Cook couldn’t see anything until he rounded the final turn.
“I could see where they had stopped, and all I could think was, ‘Darn it, they both made it over the finish line,”’ said Cook, now NASCAR’s Competition Administrator. “Richie’s car was junk and Geoff’s wasn’t a whole lot better.”
Furious, Bodine and Evans leaped out of their cars, and their crews raced to the scene. Martinsville Speedway founder Clay Earles jumped, too, but his reaction was the first step taken to avoid a battle royale in front of the main grandstand.
“I got every police officer I could find and took them to the pits,” said Earles, who built the track in 1947. “Everyone was so excited and some of them mad, I just knew we were going to have a riot.”
Earles and his squad of lawmen reacted in time to short-circuit a brawl. They took both drivers to the pressbox for post-race winners’ interviews, Bodine for the Busch half, Evans for the Modified, and placed them at opposite ends of the room.
A year later, Bodine would move to Winston Cup competition full-time. In 1985, Evans was killed at Martinsville when his car hit the wall head-on during a Modified practice run. Today, Earles retains near-photographic memories of that Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” Earles said. “That Modified race between Richie and Geoff was the greatest finish of any race ever held, anywhere.”