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Who's The Fastest Driver In NASCAR History?

Bill Elliott's 212-mph performance during qualifying for the Winston 500 at Talladega in 1987 has stood the test of time. 

By Andrew Woodin
Next on Race for the Championship: Episode 5

In the world of NASCAR, where speed rules all, being fast is a crucial fundamental of the sport. Drivers live for it, and fans crave it. No matter who you are or what role you play in the league, it’s the one universal maxim that binds all of racing together – driver hard or get off the track. Through the combined use of technology, racing acumen and, more importantly, personal grit, many drivers have attempted the push the limits of what their machinery could do. But only one can hold the title of NASCAR's fastest driver ever.

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Bill Elliott is that man. During a race qualifier for the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega, “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” achieved the record for the top speed among NASCAR drivers – one that still stands today, some 36 year later – by pushing his No. 9 Coors Ford Thunderbird around the 2.66-mile track to a breakneck speed of 212 miles per hour. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. His car was a beast, weighing it at 3,700 pounds and cranking out 625 horsepower. It’s true that after Bobby Allison’s horrific wreck at Talladega that same year, which sent his car airborne and nearly into the grandstand, injuring five spectators in the process, NASCAR enacted the use of restrictor plates, which reduce an engine's intake and thus it's power capabilities. Still, we’re talking about a span of nearly four decades in which “Million Dollar Bill,” who's the father of current NASCAR star Chase Elliott, has held that record. That’s rather incredible.

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Since then, Elliott’s spot atop the list of fastest drivers in the league’s history has really only been challenged twice, with the first coming from Rusty Wallace. As the 1987 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Wallace knows a thing or two about going fast, and on a closed course at Talladega in 2004, he showed the world just want that means. As an equally fearless driver, “Rubberhead” – Wallace’s affectionate nickname given to him by the legendary Dale Earnhardt – reached a mind-boggling 216.309 miles per hour, thundering around the tri-oval track in just 44.270 seconds. It was the ultimate test of speed, uniting both man and machine in one singular mission. Yet sadly, Wallace’s achievement would not replace Elliott’s in the record books because it was a run to test the performance of radio equipment at high speed, and not an official NASCAR event. The second driver to threaten Elliott’s record was Jeff Gordon. Driving his Chevrolet SS, the “Rainbow Warrior” won his 76th pole in 2014 at Michigan by clocking in at 206.558 miles per hour. You don’t win four Cup Series championships like the ”Wonder Boy” without being able to put the pedal to the metal.

Bill Elliott scratching his head in confusion

Though league safety protocols are now in place to limit that type of speed Elliott, Wallace and Gordon achieved, it’s not that the Next Gen cars can’t go that fast, it’s just not a good idea. The Generation 3 car in the 1980’s crushed all records, but the league couldn’t stomach another crash like Allison’s, so NASCAR debuted the Generation 4 car in 1993. Roof flaps that mitigated speed were soon installed, following a pair of crashes involving Wallace and Johnny Benson. By comparison, the Next Gen cars that debuted this year are a bit slower than their predecessors, as safety concerns have become increasingly prevalent. To offer some context, this year's pole winner at the Geico 500 at Talladega was Christopher Bell, who clocked in at a shade under 181 mph during his qualifying run.

Fast – it’s such a simple adjective, but it’s the one that might mean more to drivers than any other. Being fast is what fuels every stock car driver to compete and win. It’s what legends are made of like Buddy Baker who was the first NASCAR driver to ever reach 200 miles per hour in March of 1970. While many think that future car iterations and redesigns could threaten Elliott’s long-standing record, for now, one thing’s for certain: it’s still his and his alone.

Can't get enough NASCAR action? Watch “Race For The Championship,” which follows the lives of NASCAR's biggest stars on and off the track, Thursdays at 10/9c on USA Network. And catch up on all race action on Peacock.