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The Alabama native currently ranks 35th in all time NASCAR Cup wins.He appeared in the 1983 film Stroker Ace. He also appeared in the film Days of Thunder, and his #12 Budweiser Chevy is in a flashback. He also was a color commentator in the years up until his death.
Neil Bonnett began his NASCAR career as a protégé of 1983 Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison, working on the team's cars. He later became part of the famous "Alabama Gang" that included himself, Red Farmer and the Allison family: father Bobby, brother Donnie and, later, son Davey.
He began driving in NASCAR in 1974 and earned his first victory in 1977 at the Capital City 400 in Richmond, Virginia driving for Harry Hyde/Jim Stacy Racing. He had another victory in 1977 at the Los Angeles Times 500, which would be the last Dodge win in NASCAR until 2001.
Many in racing circles thought 1978 would be his year to dominate, but troubles with his cars (the new for 78 Dodge Magnum) and financial problems between Hyde and Stacy caused his cars to fail and to drop out of many races.
In 1979 he hooked up with the Wood Brothers Racing Team and got his career back on track with three victories. He later won back-to-back World 600s (NASCAR's longest race, now the Coca-Cola 600) and back-to-back Busch Clash (now Bud Shootout) victories in 1983 and '84, including his first in which he did not win a single pole from the previous season, but was selected as a wild card entry.
In 1984, Bonnett joined Junior Johnson's team, becoming a teammate to Darrell Waltrip. In 1985, Bonnett had one of his best seasons, finishing fourth in the points standings while Waltrip went on to win his third championship.
Bonnett participated in International Race of Champions (IROC) during three seasons (1979, 1980, and 1984), and finished second twice.
On April 1, 1990, Neil Bonnett suffered a life-threatening crash during the TranSouth 500 at Darlington, South Carolina when his car hit the water barrels in front of pit road drivers-side first. Left with amnesia and dizziness, Bonnett retired from racing and turned to television, becoming a race color commentator for TNN, CBS Sports, and TBS Sports, and hosting the TV show Winners for TNN.
However, Bonnett still desired to continue racing. In 1992, he began testing cars for good friends Dale Earnhardt and car owner Richard Childress. Cleared to race again in 1993 and upon Earnhardt's suggestion, Childress gave Bonnett a ride for the 1993 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway which was numbered 31 and sponsored by Mom and Pop's, one of Earnhardt's associate sponsors. But Bonnett's comeback race was marred by a crash in which his car spun, became airborne, and crashed into the spectator fence.
Bonnett was uninjured and called the rest of the race from the CBS broadcast booth after being cleared at the infield care center. He would also start the final race of the 1993 season in Atlanta, but he dropped out after just three laps.
The reason the team gave for removing the car from the race was a blown engine, however Bonnett was teamed with points leader Dale Earnhardt, and the car was retired to assist Earnhardt in winning the season's championship. Earnhardt needed to maximize his finishing position, and by Bonnett quitting the race he was assured of those three championship points. That would be Bonnett's final cup start of his career.
Despite the setbacks, Bonnett was encouraged because he had secured a ride and sponsorship for at least six races in the 1994 season with car owner James Finch, including the season opening Daytona 500, for Phoenix Racing. But on February 11, 1994, during the first practice session for the 1994 Daytona 500, Bonnett's car suffered a right front tire failure in the track's fourth turn. Bonnett's car hit the outside wall nearly head-on. Bonnett was taken to nearby Halifax Medical Center, but he had died on impact. He is buried in Pleasant Grove's cemetery, Forest Grove Memorial Gardens. A road called "Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive" in his hometown is honored by him, along with fellow native Davey Allison, who died a year earlier.
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