With the NASCAR All-Star Race in the rearview mirror, the NASCAR Cup Series gets back to business. This weekend, the Nashville Superspeedway hosts its first-ever Cup Series race. It’s the first time the series has come to Nashville in nearly 40 years, so it’s been a long wait.
When the Cup Series last visited Nashville, the field bulged with NASCAR Hall of Famers. Seven were on the starting grid, with five finishing in the top 10. The stakes were nothing like the $1 million Kyle Larson received for winning the All-Star Race. And no one knew at the time how it eventually took for the Cup Series to return to the Music City.
Nashville has a long history with the elite level of NASCAR. But it’s also had a long break that ends on June 20, though a more recent Hall of Famer believes the series came back to the wrong track.
Fairgrounds Speedway hosted at least one NASCAR Cup Series race for 27 years
The first time the NASCAR Cup Series raced in Nashville was Aug. 10, 1958. Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly came from the eighth position to win the inaugural Nashville 200 and take home an $8.335 winner’s check. It was the first of 42 races held at Fairgrounds Speedway, with at least one race held there annually through 1984.
Fairgrounds Speedway hosted two races on its 0.596-mile oval in 1984, starting with the Coors 420 in May. Darrell Waltrip took the checkered flag under caution that day after starting on the pole. Neil Bonnett wound up second despite leading for 320 of the race’s 424 laps.
Then in July, the drivers and their haulers made their way back to the Music City, not knowing they wouldn’t be back.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. arrived in Nashville in a familiar position
Ten days before the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Nashville for the Pepsi 420, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was at the top of the standings for what was then known as the Winston Cup. The legendary driver was still early in his NASCAR Cup Series career, hunting a second championship to go with his 1980 title.
After an eighth-place finish in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on Independence Day, Earnhardt held a 52-point lead in the standings over Darrell Waltrip. Neither driver did exceptionally well in qualifying, with Waltrip starting 12th and Earnhardt 16th. Ricky Rudd won the pole and led for the first 27 laps.
Earnhardt made his way from the middle of the pack to take the lead on lap 141 before Waltrip overtook him on lap 153. On lap 170, Earnhardt moved back into first before Geoff Bodine passed him on lap 191. Bodine went on to lead the final 86 laps for the win. Besides the $25,800 winner’s check, Bodine moved into the top 10 in the point standings.
As for Earnhardt, his lead over Waltrip shrunk to 47 points after a third-place finish. That was one spot behind Waltrip. As for the rest of the future Hall of Famers in the field, Bobby Allison finished fifth, Terry Labonte sixth, and Bill Elliott ran seventh. Further back, Rusty Wallace finished 18th, while Richard Petty was 25th after engine trouble knocked him out of the race.
The epilogue to the 1984 season
In 1984, the NASCAR Cup Series did not have some of the bells and whistles of today. There were no stages or playoffs. Instead, drivers put themselves through their paces for 30 races and accumulated points.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. won just twice in 1984 and wound up fourth in the Winston Cup standings. Labonte won the first Cup championship of his career (he would take a second title in 1996). He finished 65 points ahead of Harry Gant, while Elliott was third. Waltrip won a series-best seven races and tied for the lead with four poles. But despite the gaudy numbers that included leading for a total of 2,030 laps (also tops in the series), he finished fifth.
As for Earnhardt, he won twice at Fairgrounds Speedway. He took the checkered flag for the Busch Nashville 420 in 1980 as part of his first Cup championship. He won the race again, under the same sponsorship, in 1983.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the NASCAR Cup Series again. Several times. He went back-to-back three times, winning in 1986–87, 1990–91, and 1993–94. The seventh championship tied Petty for the most in NASCAR history, a mark matched by Jimmie Johnson in 2016.
Historical data courtesy of Racing Reference.