It wasn’t like tandem drafting, but the one-two combination of the Alabama Gang and the Wood Brothers was a powerful pairing back in the day at Talladega Superspeedway.
The Wood Brothers, who now campaign the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion driven by Paul Menard, got the first of their five Talladega wins in 1971 with Donnie Allison of Hueytown aboard their 1969 Mercury.
Allison, one of the original members of the gang along with his brother Bobby, Red Farmer and the late Neil Bonnett, got off to a fast start in his first race at his home track by winning the pole with a lap at 185.869 miles per hour. It was the first of six poles at Talladega for the Stuart, Va.-based team.
Throughout a 500-mile race that saw 45 official lead changes, Allison accounted for 16 of them, and took the lead for good with eight laps remaining.
But the race ended as do many in today’s era, with a quick sprint race to the checkered flag.
Dave Marcis’ blown engine set up a one-lap dash to the finish, with Allison leading the charge to the flagman waving both the green and white flags.
Allison, who later said he was determined to hold the lead from the start of that last lap to the finish, did just that, holding off his brother Bobby Allison to take the checkered flag. Buddy Baker, who later raced for the Wood Brothers, finished third ahead of Pete Hamilton and Fred Lorenzen.
The Woods won three more races at Talladega in the 1970s, with the legendary David Pearson at the wheel then got their fifth in 1980 with Bonnett, who like the Allisons lived in Hueytown.
In that Talladega 500, Bonnett started from the outside pole, where the No. 21 has started six times over the years.
Like Allison nine years before, Bonnett led the race early and often. He led the 15th lap and was out front seven more times including the final four laps.
Also like Allison’s victory, there was drama aplenty at the end.
A crash by Billie Harvey set up a seven-lap run to the finish line. Cale Yarborough held the lead on the restart and stayed out front through Lap 184 of 188 only to lose the lead to Dale Earnhardt.
While Yarborough, another former driver of the No. 21, and Earnhardt were banging doors at the front and Benny Parsons was looking for the lead as well, Bonnett was mounting a charge, gaining speed with every lap.
“We were pulling a 3.00:1 rear gear, and everyone else was a good bit lower ratio than that,” team co-owner Eddie Wood recalled. “It took Neil a couple of laps to get up to speed, but once he did, he ran them down and passed them.”
On Lap 185, Bonnett surged into the lead and built a six-car-length cushion by the time the checkered flag fell.
Yarborough took the runner-up spot over Earnhardt, Parsons and Harry Gant.
The 1980 win by Bonnett, a one-time pipefitter who got nine of his 18 career Cup victories aboard the Wood Brothers’ No. 21, helped build the legacy of the Alabama Gang at Talladega Superspeedway, where the backstretch is now known as “The Alabama Gang Superstretch.”
Wood said he’d never heard the Alabama Gang term until Eli Gold, a long-time NASCAR announcer and the radio voice of the Alabama Crimson Tide, used it on a broadcast.
“I thought it sounded really cool,” Wood said.
The Woods and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team return to Talladega this weekend for their first run there with Menard at the wheel.
And like many of those who came before him in the No. 21, Menard seems to have a knack for finding his way to the front.
He has two career top-three finishes at Talladega including a runner-up run in the fall race of 2008 along with a fourth-place finish in 2013 plus three other top-10 finishes.
Qualifying at Talladega is set for Saturday at 12:05 p.m. Central Time (1:05 Eastern), and Sunday’s 500-miler is scheduled to start just after 1 p.m. on Sunday (2 p.m. Eastern) with TV coverage on FOX.