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Celebrating the 426: Mopar's Greatest Racing Moments


April 26th (4.26) is being promoted as HEMI Day by Mopar Parts and Chrysler in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the legendary 426 HEMI engine. 1964 was a watershed year for motorsports as well as the Chrysler Corporation and its engine that would become synonymous with unequaled horsepower and winning in dominant, if not embarrassing, fashion. In honor of the most famous engine of all time (sorry small-block Chevy fans — come back when you find another 100 cubes), we proudly present, in honor of the eight barrels of goodness that sit atop the orange menace, the Top 8 Mopar Moments in NASCAR history.

8. The Elephant Motor Dominates Daytona (Feb. 23, 1964)
Not a bad way to get out of the gate. With engine blocks still warm from being cast after preseason testing revealed trouble spots, Paul Goldsmith set off on a qualifying run of nearly 175 mph — 14mph faster than the previous record. Junior Johnson and Bobby Isaac won the qualifying races in their Dodge Polaras, while Richard Petty put a hurting on the field come Sunday in his Plymouth Belvedere. The only car on the lead lap, the boy who would be King, led a 1-2-3 finish of 426 Hemi-powered cars across the finish line, putting the NASCAR world on notice that the 1964 season would be a painful one.

7. All Hail: The King: Petty’s Season of Unbreakable Records (1967 Season)
After the 1964 performance that saw Richard Petty win nine races (with 14 second-place efforts) and his first of seven championships, NASCAR put the kibosh on the Hemi. For an engine to run in competition, it must be made a regular production option. Chrysler boycotted the ’65 season, but with the Street Hemi released to the general public in 1966 it was go-time once again. Even three years after its introduction, nobody could have predicted what was about to happen: 48 starts, 27 wins, seven second-place runs, 10 wins in a row. Yeah, I know, they raced a lot and some of them were on dirt tracks, but when you win or finish second over 70 percent of the time at the height of the muscle car era, you don’t owe anybody an apology.

6. Baker Breaks 200 mph Barrier (March 24, 1970)
When Buddy Baker was in his heyday, he had a reputation of driving one way: WFO, throttle to the stops, checkers or wreckers. The first time he raced at Martinsville for Petty Enterprises, the crew pulled the brakes off the car and said they could be used in another race with no problem. Therefore, Buddy was the natural choice to attempt to break the hallowed 200 mph barrier for an average-lap speed at Talladega.

In what is one of my favorite motorsports related photographs of all time, the chalkboard don’t lie when Baker lit up the clocks with an average speed of 200.447mph.

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5. Isaac Sets Land Speed Record at Bonneville Salt Flats (Jan. 1971)  
The Bugatti Veyron required three radiators, four turbo chargers, 16 cylinders and five miles of perfectly flat road to attain 254 mph in April, 2013. In 1971, Bobby Isaac needed just one mile of salt, a two-year-old K&K Insurance Dodge Charger Daytona with its nose cone, rudders, and a 426 Hemi to break an average run record of 210 mph. During practice runs, he ran the same speed with crew chief Harry Hyde riding shotgun, clinging to the roll cage. Twenty eight world land speed records were set over the course of their quest, many of which still stand to this day.

4. Guts. Glory. Keselowski. Dodge Wins First NASCAR Race in 20 Years (Sept. 4, 1997)
While Brad Keselowski has certainly made a name for himself in NASCAR having won Nationwide and Cup Series championships, his father Bob Keselowski was the first in the family to win a NASCAR race. He was also the first to get Dodge back into Victory Lane since Richard Petty last visited some 20 years earlier. Bob Keselowski was a pioneer in helping to get Chrysler back into NASCAR — and circle track racing in general — having campaigned a Chrysler LeBaron in the ARCA Series. In the Truck Series race at Richmond in Sept. 1997, his Ram reigned supreme, putting the Mopar Parts sponsored machine in the winner’s circle after a two-decade absence.

3. McMurray Wins First Career Cup Race in Second Start (Oct., 2002)
When Dodge returned to NASCAR for the 2001 season, it wasn’t some half-hearted effort. Ray Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports to join the fray, as did Indy 500 and championship-winning owner Chip Ganassi. In 2002, Sterling Marlin was leading the points with nine races to go when, as Sterling might say, “Someone stuck uh stick in muh spokes.” A broken neck was the result of a crash at Kansas Speedway, and a replacement driver was needed ASAP. Enter Jamie McMurray, relatively obscure Busch Grand National competitor from Missouri. A 26th-place finish at Talladega didn’t necessarily shout “next big thing,” but the following week at Charlotte, McMurray led 96 laps en route to his first career win after holding off Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Jimmie Johnson.

2. Awesome Bill, Dodge Win at Indy (Aug. 4, 2002)
Bill Elliott made a name for himself for winning big races in 1985, when he won the inaugural Winston Million by conquering three of NASCAR’s triple crown of races: the Daytona 500, Talladega 500 and the Southern 500. When the Brickyard 400 was added to the schedule in 1994, it was another crown that needed to be captured. In 2003, Elliott led 93 laps and held off a trio of Fords to the checkered flag. As is the case with most Mopar guys, Elliott had the only Dodge in the top 15 that day, making planting one on oil and rubber covered bricks at the start-finish line that much sweeter.

1. Keselowski Wins 2012 Sprint Cup Championship
As the sun began to set on NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, so did Dodge’s involvement in the sport. The fallout from the 2009 auto bailout meant a buyer was needed for one of America’s most storied automotive brands — and one that finds itself on the brink of financial ruin and obsolescence every 20 years. Fiat makes Ferraris, Maserattis, and, well, Fiats, but none of those fit a NASCAR template. When the focus shifted from selling muscle cars to throwing everything they had at the Dart, Dodge was all but done in NASCAR. And once Roger Penske decided to rekindle a relationship with Ford to help cover the costs of developing the new Gen-6 car on the horizon, its future was set. In true heroic Mopar fashion though, Bad Brad Keselowski went out and (briefly) prevented Jimmie Johnson from winning his sixth title by winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. What followed was the greatest interview in the history of ESPN’s SportsCenter:

Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese

Isaac photo courtesy of George Wallace/AeroWarriors