Dover’s Biggest Upset, Blurred by Controversy

Dover Downs has had some upsets in its days. In 1990 Derrike Cope won his second career race proving to the NASCAR world his Daytona 500 victory was no fluke. In 1995 Kyle Petty won in surprising fashion after starting 37th on the field. Martin Truex, Jr won his first race in 2007, showing the world he was in NASCAR to belong.

None of those races even come close to the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover. That’s when a veteran car owner with a veteran driver tasted the sweet taste of victory lane for the first time, giving Dover Downs International Raceway, its biggest upset.

The 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 had everything a big race needed to have in the Winston Cup Series. Youngsters and veterans scattered through the field with the names of Pearson, Shepherd, Bonnett and Waltrip setting the pace for the field in the first two rows.
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Early on in the day you knew it was going to be a crazy race. On lap 1 two time Dover winner Benny Parsons and Dave Marcis got together, damaging both racecars and forcing both drivers to retire. Early on it was pole sitter David Pearson, who was setting a blistering pace. However, Pearson’s engine started to show signs of fatigue and was passed by Neil Bonnett for the lead, shortly after Pearson went to the garage for engine trouble.

Neil Bonnett set the pace from there. His No. 21 Purolator Ford was the class of the field, with 40 laps to go Bonnett had a commanding two lap lead over second place Cale Yarborough.

Then suddenly without warning, Bonnett’s engine blew. It was the break Cale Yarborough and his No. 27 M.C. Anderson team needed.

Yarborough was cruising. Meanwhile, Jody Ridley was having a career day. His Truexmore/ Sunny King Ford was running in second place. Ridley came into the event seventh in the standings, yet he hadn’t had a top five yet.  

A win however seemed to be out of reach. Yarborough was dominating. The 40,000 people who packed  Dover Downs International Raceway that day, began to think that this was Yarborough’s race. Then without warning smoke came out of the rear of Yarborough’s car. Yarborough’s engine had blown, giving the lead Jody Ridley, who was two days shy of his 39th birthday.

Ridley’s No. 90 Ford took the lead from the departed Yarborough on lap 480. Now all Ridley had to do was make it to the finish. Ridley a long time short track star, and car owner Junie Donlavey had taken their first checkered flags in NASCAR history.

Donlavey had little help and little sponsor and it was good to see the little guy win, but not everyone was happy with the victory. “I know we won that race,” said Harry Rainer, owner of Bobby Allison’s No. 28 Ford. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Several times during the late stages of the race, NASCAR’s scoring was messed up. This was long before electric tonic scoring, so many time human error was the cause for the mistakes. D.K. Ulrich who ended up fourth was listed nine laps down one lap and then five the next lap and on lap 480, NASCAR had no rundown at all on the scoreboard.

Whatever prove or suspension Rainer and the NASCAR community had about the race, there was nothing that persuaded NASCAR to overturn their decision. Jody Ridley had won his first career race, and to this day it remains one of the biggest upset in Dover Downs history.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of


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