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NASCAR's 12 Greatest Comeback Stories


12. Ricky Rudd – Daytona 1984

Even today, this has to rank as one of the most violent crashes in the history of motorsports. In this clip from 1984 — when the Bud Shootout Sprint Unlimited was the Busch Clash — Ricky Rudd is strictly along for the ride coming off of Turn 4. Undeterred, Rudd showed up to race the next week with his swollen eyes taped open (hence Rowdy Burns’ line in the Pool Table scene in “Days of Thunder”). At the following race in Richmond — 14 days after this accident — Rudd and the Bud Moore-owned No. 15 Ford won the Miller High Life 400. Guess there was more than just “one tough customer.”

by Vito Pugliese

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Sonoma, 2004

Just as the inaugural Chase for the Championship was to begin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. opted to compete in an American LeMans Series race for Chevrolet’s Corvette factory team. During practice, he slid off the esses and busted open the fuel cell. Junior was knocked out cold and the car was engulfed in flames, though slowly came-to extricated himself from the burning fiberglass. With burns on his neck, legs and back — which come to find out years later were far worse than originally reported — he muscled through to win just a couple weeks later in Talladega. Spookiest thing about the incident? Junior swears his dad helped him out of the wreckage.

by Vito Pugliese

10. Steve Park – Atlanta, 1998

Dale Earnhardt, Inc. entered full-time Cup competition in 1998 with a new race shop (the “Garage Mahal”), a new team, a huge sponsorship deal with Pennzoil and a rookie driver in Steve Park. However, at the third race weekend of the season in Atlanta, a blown tire, stuck throttle and probably being KTFO saw Park suffer devastating hits to the outside and pit walls. Straight concrete, homey. Park returned 16 races later after Darrell Waltrip subbed admirably for the injured driver. And roughly two years later, scored an emotional win at Watkins Glen.

by Vito Pugliese

9. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Pocono 1982

Wrangler Jeans had an ad campaign in the early ’80s touting Dale Earnhardt as, “One Tough Customer.” It’s hard to argue against the logic after seeing this flip at Pocono in Turn Two. Tim Richmond, also involved in the wreck, helps Earnhardt across the track to safety. Earnhardt suffered a broken kneecap in the accident, and limped through the remainder of the season. His career turned out pretty decent thereafter, though.

by Vito Pugliese

8. Tony Stewart – Charlotte 2006

Tony Stewart has been forced to deal with injury prior to Monday’s sprint car incident in Iowa. In May 2006, after taking a brutal hit the previous night in a Busch Grand National race, he followed it up with this scapula-cracker in the Coca-Cola 600. Smoke was in rough shape, as you can see by his expression exiting the car. The injury was severe enough that Ricky Rudd was tabbed to relieve him early on at Dover the following week. Five races later, though, Stewart returned to Victory Lane at Daytona.

by Vito Pugliese

7. Bill Elliott – Talladega 1996

Awesome Bill went airborne in 1996, breaking his leg once the No. 94 Ford re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Even in this era of restrictor plates and roof flaps that rarely saw cars get over 195 mph, the Gen-4 took to the sky like the namesake of the winged aviator Elliott’s car was named for. Elliott was sidelined for the remaining seven races of the season but returned to race in the Cup Series for another seven full seasons, recording his final three of 44 career NASCAR wins.

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by Vito Pugliese

6. Neil Bonnett – Darlington 1990

Neil Bonnett suffered a severe concussion and brain contusions in this crash at Darlington in 1990. Driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Citgo Ford, an incident between Ernie Irvan, Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin at the front of the pack sent Bonnett into the inside pit wall. Bonnett suffered confusion, amnesia and chronic dizziness from the incident. He took the next three years of racing off, filling the time with broadcast work until he was well enough to return to the cockpit in 1993. Tragically, Bonnett lost his life in February 1994, in nearly the same spot as his friend Dale Earnhardt.

by Vito Pugliese

5. Richard Petty – Darlington 1970

It’s not often that you see a Plymouth bust through a three-foot thick concrete wall with a guy hanging halfway out of it only to emerge without life-threatening injuries. This wreck in 1970 in the Rebel 400 resulted in a dislocated shoulder for Richard Petty, but could have been much worse. See that red spot next to his helmet? No, that’s not blood, it’s the rag that The King used to soak in water and suck on during a race. Jim McKay, of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” saw it and thought he had cracked his crown and the Kingdom of Randleman had fallen. The result from this wreck? The advent of the window net. Petty went on to finish fourth in the 1970 season’s point standings and won titles in the next five years.

by Vito Pugliese

4. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Talladega 1996

While racing with Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin at the front of the pack, Dale Earnhardt gets hooked by the latter after receiving a tap from former. Earnhardt’s car comes apart, the engine skittering down the racetrack. He is then t-boned – in the roof – by Derrike Cope. Earnhardt emerged with a broken collarbone, but showed up to Indy the next week, giving way to Mike Skinner on the first yellow flag. One week later in Watkins Glen, he put the No. 3 on the pole with what was then a track record. Legends are one thing – living up to them is quite another. The Halo bar which attached to the roof and runs down the center of the windshield was developed after this impact.

by Vito Pugliese

3. Steve Park – Darlington 2001

As if losing Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500 wasn’t enough, Dale Earnahrdt, Inc. nearly lost its first driver during a Busch race in September 2001. Under caution, Park’s car inexplicably veered hard right and into the path of on-coming and wide-open Larry Foyt III (who was trying to catch back up to the rear of the field). Park was cut from the car and would spend nearly a year trying to recover head injuries. He returned in 2002 at Pocono … only to be given a not-so-pleasant reminder of how dangerous the sport is.

by Vito Pugliese

2. Davey Allison – Pocono 1992

A rivalry with Darrell Waltrip reached a crescendo at Pocono in 1992. Coming to the Tunnel Turn, DW takes a swipe at Allison’s No. 28, sending the Texaco Ford inverted and tumbling down the backstretch, barrel rolling over the guardrail. Allison didn’t miss a beat, showing up in Talladega the next week with black eyes and his hand Velcro’d to the steering wheel. For clarification: his eyes weren’t black and blue like he got punched in the face; the whites of his eyes were actually black. No matter though — Davey still brought it home third. And all of this just a few months before getting knocked out at Charlotte after tangling with Kyle Petty in The Winston.

by Vito Pugliese

1. Tim Richmond – Pocono 1987

If you’re not familiar with one of NASCAR’s most charismatic, talented and enigmatic drivers, watch this entire “30 for 30” documentary on the late, great Tim Richmond. His comeback story begins at about the 22:00 mark, but seriously, find time to watch the entire video. If you're not a fan, you'll become one.

by Vito Pugliese