Published September 12, 2015
Surprisingly, the most famous pass in the history of the Sprint All-Star Race wasn’t one.
Not surprisingly, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was involved in it.
Welcome to the Pass in the Grass.
The phantom advance happened in the All-Star race – then called the Winston – May 17, 1987 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It occurred in the 10-lap shootout that ended the race, and the drama ultimately involved four of the best drivers of the time – Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine, Terry Labonte and Earnhardt.
The drama began on the first lap of the final 10 as Bodine and Earnhardt, bitter rivals, tangled while racing Elliott for the lead in tight quarters, sending Bodine into a spin and out of the battle for the win.
With Bodine’s trouble, Elliott, who had led the event’s first two segments, inherited the role as Earnhardt’s major challenger, and the two showcased some of the best racing ever seen in the race’s history.
For the next two laps, they raced bumper to bumper and side by side, Elliott seeking every possible avenue to pass Earnhardt. As they exited turn four with seven laps to go, they made contact, and Earnhardt slipped to the left and onto the grass adjacent to the frontstretch.
Remarkably, he retained control of his Chevrolet and jumped back onto the racing surface, still in front of Elliott. Although he never lost the lead, the maneuver quickly picked up the “Pass in the Grass” name, and it stuck.
Two laps later, Earnhardt forced Elliott high on the backstretch and into the wall, and Elliott soon fell off the lead pace with a tire problem.
Labonte stepped forward to briefly challenge Earnhardt for first place. They raced side by side for a while, but Earnhardt stubbornly refused to be beaten, and he finished first with Labonte trailing.
On the race’s cool-down lap, Elliott slammed into the rear of Earnhardt’s car.
"We're not Saturday night wrestlers,” Elliott said after the race. “We're racers. He liked to wreck me and several others on the track. If that's the way he wants to win the race, I hope he wins a thousand of them on Saturday night.
"If a man has to run over you to beat you, it's time to stop. I'm sick of it. Time and time again. If that's what it takes to be a Winston Cup champion, I don't want it."
Earnhardt admitted that the racing went over the edge, “but when there's that much money on the line, you have to expect that."
The race was the third All-Star event. Darrell Waltrip won the inaugural race in 1985 at Charlotte, and Elliott won the second event in 1986 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In 1987, the race returned to CMS, and the track has been its home since.
Earnhardt’s victory, the first of three wins (also 1990 and 1993) he would score in the All-Star race, helped to solidify the non-points event as one of the key races of the season.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.