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Bonnett Weaved His Way to a 1980 Win at Pocono

Throughout their 60-year run in NASCAR, the Wood Brothers racing team has been known for its innovations back at the shop and on pit road. Sometimes, it’s been their drivers who pioneered new tactics.

In the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono Raceway, Neil Bonnett, driving the No. 21 Mercury Cougar, prevailed over Buddy Baker in a battle that saw 19 lead changes in the final 56 laps, with Bonnett and Baker accounting for 17 of them. The two exchanged the lead nine times in the last 22 laps before Bonnett took the lead for good with four laps to go and beat Baker by .06 seconds to get the victory.

Eddie Wood remembers that when Bonnett was out front, he would move around on the race track in an attempt to disturb the air and get away from Baker. “It was the first time I remember seeing anyone trying to vary their line to break the draft,” Wood said. “When Neil came off Turn Three he’d drive straight to the inside wall and then back to the outside wall before getting into Turn One. Doing this raised a lot of eyebrows, but he was able to pull away from Baker in the closing laps by doing that.”

Bonnett’s sixth career win was memorable for other reasons too. Richard Petty crashed hard into the Tunnel Turn wall after blowing a tire. The impact broke his neck, although initial reports said it was only sprained. Petty didn’t miss any races after that but needed relief from Joe Millikan in several events. And the Pocono race saw Baker and Cale Yarborough engage in a fender-rubbing battle to the line for the runner-up spot, with Baker shaking his fist at Yarborough, prompting Bonnett to weigh in on the spat in Victory Lane. “Neil said Baker was the only driver he knew who could shake his fists out both windows of the car and still drive it,” Wood said.

The Pocono victory wound up being the next-to-last NASCAR victory for a Mercury product. (Bonnett also won the next week at Talladega in the Woods’ Mercury.) After the 1980 season, NASCAR changed its rules, dropping the wheelbase for Cup cars from 115 to the 110 inches that it still uses today. The change was made because the auto manufacturers had begun building smaller cars, and NASCAR’s strategy was to keep its race cars as close to production vehicles as possible. The Woods converted one of their Mercury Cougars into a 1981 Ford Thunderbird, but found the process more trouble than it was worth and built the next one from scratch.

The dramatic change in race cars was much like the recent switch from the conventional car to the Car of Tomorrow, as race teams were concerned about giving up a proven, reliable vehicle for an all-new, basically unknown one. Although there were early concerns about the handling characteristics of the smaller car, the switch worked out just fine for Bonnett and the Wood Brothers. They won at Darlington, Dover and Atlanta during the 1981 season. “And we were fast at a lot of other places too,” Wood said.

The Wood Brothers, driver Bill Elliott and the No. 21 Fusion will return to Sprint Cup action on June 11-13 at Michigan International Speedway.