The Best That Never Were: Davey Allison

So, the next entry of this series might ruffle some feathers. 

Some would say that I’m way off base putting the late great Davey Allison among the best that didn’t make it to reach their full potential. 

Some would say that a Hall of Famer is certainly someone who reached the pinnacle of the sport in their prime, and doesn’t belong here. 

I certainly am not here to argue whether Davey Allison deserves his place in the Hall – he does. It’s the fact that his life was cut so tragically short that puts him here. He accomplished a lot while he was alive, but I think he would’ve accomplished so much more given the chance. 

The story is familiar. The crown jewel of the Alabama Gang, David Carl Allison was born into NASCAR Royalty in 1961. His father is Bobby Allison, a hall of Famer in his own right. His lineage though, didn’t mean he had an easy road to the top of American Stock Car racing. 

In 1979, Davey built his own car and began racing at the Birmingham International Raceway. It took Davey all of six starts to get his first win. He continued to win regularly at BIR for four years, when he decided to give ARCA a try in 1983. 

He would go on to win twice on his way to being named Rookie of the Year, and finishing second in the championship standings in 1984. 1985 was a year of total domination for Davey. He won 8 ARCA races that season including 4 at his beloved Talladega Superspeedway. 

Davey would come up short of the championship again, but he was starting to turn heads across the world of NASCAR. He had been making starts for his father’s Busch Series team since ‘83, but hadn’t netted a win in any of them. He had a few really nice runs here and there between his dad’s team and running for the Sadler Brothers. Strangely enough, Davey Allison never won a Busch Series race.

Allison would get his first real crack at the Cup Series in 1985. Hoss Ellington, a mid-pack car owner, put Davey in the car at Talladega for that year’s Talladega 500. Ever the master at his home track, he qualified 22nd and brought home the number one Chevrolet in 10th. 

His run for Ellington brought about some more starts in 1986 for the Sadler Brothers, but Allison struggled and only managed a best finish of 12th with them that season. Davey wouldn’t suit up for the Cup Series again until that season’s fall Talladega race, when he filled in for Neil Bonnett. He managed to wheel Junior Johnson’s 12 car to a 7th place finish. 

Little did the world know at the time, Davey Allison was about to get his big break.

In 1987, he signed on to replace the legendary Cale Yarborough in the famous number 28 Ford Thunderbird. Owner Harry Lanier would also negotiate a sponsorship deal that would be synonymous with Davey for his entire career. Texaco Havoline would replace the familiar Hardee’s livery and thus, one of the most beautiful race cars to ever turn a lap in all of Motorsports was born.

The car had a white base with black trim, along with chrome golden numbers. To this day people pay tribute to that scheme, from iRacing Superspeedway to short track Saturday night at the local dirt track. 

Davey stormed out of the gate in his new ride and became the first rookie to qualify on the front row for the Daytona 500. A late race pit stop snafu ruined his shot at a good finish, but he was well on his way to being the hottest young driver on the circuit. 

The May race weekend at Talladega came around and “Awesome” Bill Elliott started the weekend off with a bang, posting the fastest qualifying lap ever recorded in NASCAR. When the green flag fell that Sunday, Davey started from the third position behind his father, Bobby. 

What followed would be remembered for decades to come. 

With his son ahead of him, Bobby Allison ran over a piece of debris and cut a right rear tire on the front stretch. His number 22 would spin, flip into the air and crash sickeningly into the catch fence, injuring spectators and Allison himself. The race was red flagged for almost three hours while crews worked to repair the fence. Davey saw it all happen in his rear view mirror. 

With a heavy heart Davey continued when the race resumed. Elliott’s engine expired later on, eliminating a huge roadblock for him that day. Eventually, with darkness closing in, NASCAR decided to cut the race down to 10 laps short of the original distance. Davey was able to work his way past Dale Earnhardt on the final restart and went on to capture his first career win. 

By doing so, he became the first rookie to win a race in six seasons. Allison would rack up another win at Dover a few weeks later, and even though he only was able to make 22 of the 29 races that season, he was The Cup Series Rookie of the Year. 

1988 would be a huge year for Davey. He was going to run his first full season in the Cup Series that season and would be visiting a lot of tracks he’d never raced on before in Cup. Of course at Daytona, Allison was good. The only car he couldn’t beat was the one driven by his dad that day, as Bobby Allison scored his third Daytona 500 win. To this day, they are the only father son duo to finish 1-2 in the 500. 

Davey would go on to win another two times, once at Michigan and once at Richmond on his way to an 8th place finish in the points standings. The 1988 season however proved to be a bit more of a struggle than expected. Davey didn’t run well at the short tracks. His crew chief Joey Knuckles was fired and replaced. And toward the end of the season, Harry Rainier was looking to sell his burgeoning operation. There was also the violent crash that his father Bobby suffered at Pocono that season that left the legend fighting for his life in the hospital. 

In October of that year, Rainier finally found a buyer for his race team in team engineer turned crew chief Robert Yates. Yates remained as crew chief for the ‘88 season until taking full ownership in 1989. The newly named Robert Yates Racing would go on to be a staple of NASCAR for decades to come. 

The following two seasons were decent by most metrics. But in 1991, Yates would make a great difference in the career of Davey Allison by hiring the man who would be known as “America’s Crew Chief”, Larry McReynolds. Larry Mac would replace Jake Elder after Davey openly feuded with Elder for the first part of the season. The pair produced immediate results, posting a second place finish in their very first race together. Their first win would come in the prestigious Coca Cola 600, as Davey would dominate to win his first crown jewel. 

Davey would rack up a career best five wins, 12 top fives and 16 top tens that year, despite breaking his wrist after his fellow Ford teammates decided not to draft with him at Talladega, costing him a win. Davey showed massive growth in 1991. He won his first road course race at Sonoma, and found himself in championship contention for the first time. 

1992 would be remembered as a wild but successful season for Allison. He came out of the gate strong as he piloted his black and red Ford to his first and only Daytona 500 win. The first of his many injuries in ‘92 was a badly bruised shoulder he got in a hard crash at Bristol. Ever the badass, Allison would not only not need relief driver Jimmy Hensley at North Wilkesboro, but he would get the win there, his first short track win of his career. 

Davey would be injured again in another bad crash at Martinsville, but would again suck it up and win at Talladega. 

Then there was “One Hot Night.” 

The first Winston All Star Race held under the lights at Charlotte did not disappoint. At the end of the final segment, NASCAR royalty would decide it amongst themselves as Kyle Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Davey all battled for the win. Kyle moved Earnhardt out of the way but in doing so, opened the door for Allison. He jumped out to the lead and coming to the line, as the two came together in a shower of sparks and twisted metal. Davey Allison was removed from the car, badly injured and unconscious, but a winner of two straight All Star Races. 

Davey would go on to talk about an out of body experience he had after the wreck, as he saw his car from above and floated towards a bright light in the sky. Grim foreshadowing and injury aside, he would go on to finish fourth the following week in the Coca Cola 600. 

Allison would maintain a large points lead up until Pocono. During that race he suffered another violent crash, one that was eerily similar to the one that ended his father Bobby’s career. The Texaco Ford would roll over multiple times and basically looked like it had gone through a paper shredder. He would not walk away from this crash either, as he broke his arm, collarbone, and wrist and suffered a severe concussion. 

Davey was back at Talladega the next week however, sporting iconic dark sunglasses and a cast on his broken arm. When reporters asked to see the eyes behind the glasses, he warned them, “I’ll show you, but it’s ugly.” Allison removed the glasses and where the whites of his eyes should’ve been were a dark red. They looked otherworldly, and racked with pain. But there sat Davey Allison. Bruised up, eyes like the crypt keeper, a smile on his face. 

The amazing part about this anecdote? He tried to race. The Havoline crew and Larry Mac rigged up a way for him to shift the car and against all odds, Davey started the race. Bobby Hillin Jr. would relieve him and would get the points leader a third place finish. He would miss the next race, but would return at Michigan the following week. 

Then more tragedy struck the Allisons. 

Clifford Allison, Davey’s little brother, was killed in a practice crash at Michigan. Davey would persevere yet again, and rally his way to a top five. The next day, he would go home to Hueytown, Alabama to say goodbye. 

Davey would battle back to take the championship points lead once again heading into the 1992 Hooters 500 in Atlanta. I’m not going to ramble about this race. It’s been well documented what happened, so I’ll just sum it up this way: Alan Kulwicki, a self made Cup Series contender driving for his own team, shocked the world and upset Davey Allison and Bill Elliott to win the 1992 Championship. 

This would be Davey Allison’s final full season in the NASCAR Cup Series. 

1993 started off well for him, despite finishing 28th in his final Daytona 500, he would pick up a win at Richmond and was really hitting his stride. Everything would come to a screeching halt however, when he boarded his helicopter to go watch a test at Talladega. 

On July 12, 1993, Davey crashed his helicopter into a parking lot in the Talladega infield. He would pass away the next day due to a closed head injury. He was 32 years old. 

Davey Allison to me, is the greatest example of what my series is about. If you look at it, there’s a good chance he would’ve won the title in 1993. That would’ve certainly held Dale Earnhardt to at least 6 titles. Jeff Gordon may not have blossomed into the superstar and icon he is today. Robert Yates Racing may have never closed. 

So many what ifs resulted from Davey’s death. In my opinion, he would’ve been running well and winning championships well into the 2000s before calling it a career around 2005 or 2006. Davey is survived by his two children and his wife Liz. 

In 2019, he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It is insane to think of the potential cut short by terrible tragedy. That’s why Davey Allison is one of the Best That Never Were. 

I’d like to dedicate this story to my sister Maria, who died tragically on July 14 of this year. Her passing made putting this together difficult, but it allowed me a distraction and a way to heal. Like Davey, she had so much to offer the world. 

I hope you are at peace now Maria, wherever you are. 

Photo credit to @NASCARMemories on Twitter.

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