Fortune Plays Big Role With Caution Flag; Victory Is Third Straight
Although it happened two days before St. Patrick’s Day, Bill Elliott offered a fine example of what “The Luck Of The Irish” is all about.
It was good fortune, not speed, that carried Elliott to victory in the Motorcraft 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race. After spending most of the 328-lap race around the 1.522-mile AMS track watching a heard of cars outdistance him, the driver from Dawsonville, Ga., got the only possible break which could have dumped victory into his lap.
It was a caution flag at the right moment. On lap 284, Mike Wallace spun his Oldsmobile on the backstretch to start the seventh and final caution period of the day.
As fate would have it, it came after ALL of the race leaders had pitted. Only Elliott remained on the track, where he had been running a distant seventh after a series of green-flag pit stops that began on lap 262.
But no more. NASCAR confirmed almost immediately that because Elliott had not pitted and those before him had, he was the ONLY car on the lead lap.
Where the scenario had once been a fight for the lead among Davey Allison, Dick Trickle, Harry Gant and others, it changed dramatically. When the race restarted on lap 289, all Elliott had to do to win was take the checkered flag.
His rivals did regain the lost lap because they did not pit a second time under yellow, but they were at the tail end of the lead lap and nearly two dozen seconds behind Elliott’s Junior Johnson & Associates Ford when the race restarted.
The only thing which might thwart Elliott’s cruise to victory was another caution flag.
It never came.
As a result, Elliott won for the third straight time in 1992 and for the third consecutive week. He has now notched wins at Rockingham, N.C., Richmond, Va., and Atlanta.
“We’ve been good twice and lucky once this year but we’ll take it,” said Elliott, who now has won 37 times in his Winston Cup career and is tied for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time list with the late Bobby Isaac.
“We were lucky to be running in the same lap with the other guys. But after the next-to-last caution, we started to run decent but we were still behind. Then durned, if the last caution didn’t come out and put us in business.
“We just stayed out at the right time. Our car got super gas mileage and we never gave up. A lot of times, it’s not the fastest car that wins the race. I almost hate to take the money, but I’m going to.”
What Elliott took was $71,000 for his second Motorcraft 500 win and the fourth of his career at Atlanta. His victory kept alive Ford’s streak of consecutive triumphs, which has now risen to eight, dating back to October 1991.
When it’s said Elliott didn’t figure in the race competition, it’s meant he drifted from his fourth-place starting position to as far back as 16th. He played no part in jostling for the lead.
“For a while there, it looked like we didn’t even show up today,” said crew chief Tim Brewer, who added he and Elliott had resigned themselves to making the best of the situation.
“Bill told me on the radio, ‘Ma said there would be day like this.’ We didn’t beat anybody. We got lucky.”
Elliott’s problem was he simply could not get his car to handle the way he wanted. In a Ford equipped with radial tires, which were used at Atlanta for the first time, he played a guessing game.
“We fought it all day Saturday during practice,” Elliott said. “With the bias-ply tires, I had an idea of what to do, but with the radials, it was hit or miss. I was loose going into the corner and tight coming off.”
Asked if he experienced tire blistering that was common throughout the race, Elliott replied, “We had a couple of tires that looked funny but we never had any to totally blister.”
Which was about the only good thing to happen to Elliott during the race’s early stages.
For the first 80 laps, the lead was contested among Terry Labonte in the Hagan Racing Oldsmobile, Alan Kulwicki in the Kulwicki Ford, and Darrell Waltrip in the DarWal Inc. Chevrolet. But afterwards, Davey Allison and Harry Gant took over.
Allison, in the Robert Yates Racing Ford, took the lead away from Kulwicki on lap 80 in the second turn and held it for 57 circuits, pursued by Gant and Trickle.
On lap 137, Gant, in the Leo Jackson Motorsports Oldsmobile, passed Allison in the fourth turn and the driver from Taylorsville, N.C., held the point for 43 laps, expanding his margin to as much as 3.44 seconds over Allison.
Gant held his lead until lap 180, when Allison again took over. The winner of the Daytona 500 by STP seemed en route to his second victory of the year as he stayed in front for 103 laps. But when he made his only green-flag stop on lap 282, along with challengers Gant and Trickle, things began to change.
The series of green-flag stops had started 20 laps earlier. As each of the leaders went down pit road Elliott moved up a position.
“We were decent by that time,” Elliott said. “We weren’t capable of beating anyone on the track but we were the best we had been all day on that particular set of tires. If we had to go one-on-one with anyone, we couldn’t have beaten ‘em.”
When the trio of Allison, Gant and Trickle made its pit stop, NASCAR announced Elliott was the leader. Had things proceeded as expected, he, too, would have soon stopped under green.
“But I really didn’t know when that was going to be,” Elliott said.
When Wallace spun, Elliott knew what he had to do.
“I had to do the best I could to come around the track and keep those guys a lap down,” he said.
“I almost didn’t make it. Gant almost got out of the pits ahead of me.”
NASCAR rules state only the cars on the lead lap may pit on the first lap after pit road is opened during a caution period. Elliott knew he was the only driver on the lead circuit when he made the trip alone – to the cheers of the Georgia faithful.
Since they had already pitted under green, Elliott’s rivals chose not to pit under the caution. That permitted them to move back onto the lead lap on the restart, which came on lap 289. While they were ahead of Elliott on the track, in reality, they were well behind when the green flag flew.
The only thing which could save them was another caution.
But as far as Elliott was concerned, it wasn’t that simple. He began to experience problems.
“The water temperature in my car went up to 240 degrees and the oil pressure was up, too,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any way I was going to make it. All I though I could do was get out there and run until it blew.
“But it never did. And the water temperature never went down.”
While Elliott hovered back in the pack, dodging other cars and hoping his luck would hold, others battled for position ahead of him. Gant snatched second away from Geoff Bodine while, on lap 310, a resurgent Dale Earnhardt grabbed third away from Allison.
Still, it was Elliott’s day. At one point, he was 27.9 seconds ahead. When the checkered flag fell, his margin over Gant was 22.6 seconds.
Earnhardt, in the RCR Enterprises Chevrolet, finished third while Allison was fourth. Fifth went to Trickle, easily making his best showing in the Stavola Brothers Ford.
Geoff Bodine was sixth in the Bud Moore Engineering Ford, Kulwicki wound up seventh, Kyle Petty was eighth in Sabco Racing Pontiac, Labonte took ninth and Morgan Shepherd finished 10th in the Wood Brothers Ford. Fourteen cars completed all 328 laps.
Defending champion Ken Schrader was know out of the race by a crash after 38 laps. Engine failure removed Waltrip, Jimmy Spencer, Hut Stricklin, Buddy Baker, and Dorsey Schroeder.
Asked why he remained on the track when the leaders pitted under green, Elliott said, “Junior’s cars always get good gas mileage. We knew we needed to lead a lap, too. Since we were running decent, we decided to stay out.
“What happened then was simple. We got the caution flag at just the right time. Afterward, with the water temperature problems, the good Lord was just looking out for me. I mean, I pinched myself when the checkered flag fell. I just couldn’t believe it.
“We struggled all day long. That’s all there was to it. Tim even said we should have backed the car into victory lane because that’s how we won the race.
“But I can say this, if you stay in the lead lap, get good gas mileage and the caution falls your way, you will win a race.”
And in the Motorcraft 500, there was proof of that.
By Steve Waid, Executive EditorWinston Cup Scene — Vol. XV, No. 39 March 19,1992