It’s not difficult to understand why it took Bill Elliott until the very last turn of the final lap yesterday to let himself believe that he would repeat as AC Spark Plug 500 champ at Pocono International Raceway.
Elliott qualified 14th in the 40-car field two mph slower than the lead pack, spent Lap 1 of yesterday’s NASCAR sprint in the pits getting new right side rubber because of a flat, and was seldom if ever a threat to the front runners in the first 150 of the 200 lap run.
“When did I think I could win?” he responded to a writer’s question, “On the 199th lap coming off the final turn.”
“No, when I went back on the track after that last caution (between laps 129 and 139) I did not know how good we were going to run,” Elliott said of sitting 10th at the time. “When the green came out, I did not know how good I was, and then realized that we could come back.
“The car was coming back and I figured that I was going to run it as hard as I could for as long as I could. The car kept getting better and better . . . I was getting super and Randy (Wallace) was getting looser,” he said.
Wallace was a strong early entry, moving from his No. 6 starting spot to first by lap eight, taking the lead from pole sitter Ken Schrader in the last turn. The Kodiac Pontiac racer was in front or near the top through lap 60, and was ahead with 62 laps gone when a caution scrambled the field.
A plethora of racers – there were 28 lead changes among 14 drivers – then led no more than 10 laps each until circuit 117 when Kyle Petty moved to the front, passing Terry Labonte. The son of “King Richard” was pacing the field when the race went to caution on lap 129 as Lake Speed got too low, lost control, and took Greg Sacks through the first turn wall.
Sacks was treated and released from the infield hospital while Speed was taken to the Geisinger-Wyoming Valley Medical Center with a possible dislocated shoulder.
While Elliott was busy winding his chariot up for the late charge, Wallace – who grabbed the pole on lap 173 – valiantly held off Geoff Bodine. But Bodine spun in lap 187 and fell from the challenge.
“It was getting pretty slippery out there, and Rusty and I were racing really, really hard,” Bodine said, “I just lost it.”
Dale Earnhardt also made a bid, fell back when he pitted for a second set of tires on back-to-back stops, and Elliott slowly worked his way from third to second to first when he passed a fading Wallace with five laps to go and posted the 2.21-second win.
“I worked the inside and got by him, and I looked in the mirror expecting him to come back at me, but he didn’t make a move,” Elliott said of his final pass. “His car gave up and we ran well.”
Elliott was especially helped by the fact that Bodine got into late trouble.
“I don’t know that I could have won if Bodine had not gone out,” Elliott said. “It helped me a great deal. If I had had to race him (Bodine) for second place, I would have used my car up and never gotten to Rusty . . . and Rusty would have been given a chance to move out.
“When you are in a three-car pack like that, and you are in a race as we were, the second guy is going to cause havoc for the third guy,” Elliott said.
“I did everything I could,” said Wallace, who has a run of second place finishes after two early wins. He won $10,000 for leading yesterday’s race at the halfway mark. “I led the most laps, and I’m getting tired of finishing second, but he’s a great competitor and he beat me.”
It was the second victory of the year for Elliott – two in three races after capturing the Miller 400. He averaged 117.870 mph and pocketed $58,400 of a $527,567 purse. Mark Martin finished third, followed by Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant.
Elliott, with his third win in the AC 500, tied with Tim Richmond for most wins in the event.
Brett Bodine, who qualified second on Saturday in the Rick Hendrick-owned Levi Garrett/Exxon Chevy Lumina, earlier announced he would part company with Hendrick at the end of the season.
“I’m going to be much happier on a team where the owner pulls only for me,” Bodine said of his departure from the group that also runs the Tide Machine for Waltrip and Schrader’s Folgers’ entry.
“I never want to be on a two-man team again,” he said explaining that he has had discussion with Budweiser car owner Junior Johnson and with Kenny Bernstein about his Quaker State Buick.
On lap 80 Pocono had to call out its “Bugs Busters” when a rabbit hopped onto the front stretch and delayed the race two laps. The furry field fugitive, who had failed to qualify, was finally grabbed by a member of the safety team.– John Jay Fox, The Morning Call