Darlington, S.C. – If not modestly, Bill Elliott matter-of-factly conceded Darlington International Speedway has been good to him through the years.
On Sunday the 1.366-mile oval smiled on the 39-year-old NASCAR Winston Cup star again as Elliott charged past Dale Earnhardt on lap 354 and cruised to an easy win in the Southern 500.
Elliott, driving the No. 11 Ford Thunderbird owned by Junior Johnson, snapped a 52-race streak drought dating back to the Hooters 500 in Atlanta on Nov, 13, 1992.
Elliott’s victory was his fifth career win at Darlington the third Southern 500 win. The triumph was the 10th for Johnson.
Elliott also tied Tim Flock with his 40th career victory for 12th place on the all-time winners list.
“The first place I won a pole was at Darlington in 1981,” Elliott said. “I remember when Terry Labonte won his first race that I was running as good as or better than he was all day – but I was involved in a wreck somewhere during the day. Somebody blew up or something.”
“And I finished second to David Pearson here in ’79. Darlington’s been good to me,” said Elliott, who became the first and last driver to pocket the Winston Million bonus for winning three of the four selected races in 1985, a feat the Dawsonville, Ga., native discounts in his scheme of things in NASCAR history.
“I believe to Abraham Lincoln and that kind of person,” Elliott said with a smile
It was a race where the strongest cars didn’t win.
And, Elliott knew the track too tough to tame had chosen him for the checkered flag.
When the 367-l;ap marathon ended 3 hours, 55 minutes and 9 seconds after it 1:10 p.m. start only five of the starting 42 cars finished on the lead lap.
Trailing Elliott’s No. 11 was Earnhardt in second, Morgan Shepherd third, Ricky Rudd fourth and Sterling Marlin fifth.
Among the casualties were Ken Schrader’s powerful Chevrolet which led the most laps of the day. He led the chase seven different times for 127 laps before an ailing engine put his No. 25 behind the wall with 94 laps left to go.
Martin’s Ford was almost on par with Schrader, The No. 6 sat on the point five different times for 105 laps before the Jack Roush machine went up in smoke with 34 circuits remaining.
But, says Elliott, everything has it place in the scheme of things.
“We only had one lap of practice and two laps of qualifying due to the rain,” Elliott said. “We’ve never ever finished a race in a car with the water temperature at 300 degrees and the oil temperature at 260 degrees.”
“When Schrader and Martin having trouble, I felt we were doing well to that point and kept waiting for something to happen.”
The rough Darlington asphalt was the cause of most of the heating and engine problems during the race.
Elliott said the coarseness of the track and debris from tire wear kept settling in the radiators of the cars, blocking the flow of air to the engines.
“I was glad to see that last caution flag with 65 laps left because it gave (crew chief) Mike Beam and Junior (Johnson) time to hose down the engine and radiator,” Elliott added. “I was getting really nervous because I kept waiting for something to blow up. But I was optimistic and just kept looking ahead.”
When Elliott passed Earnhardt, he built up an advantage that was 6.39 seconds when he took the checkered flag.
“I’ve been called a fading former champion,” Elliott said. “But this goes to show we’re not fading as fast as some people thought.
“I’ve never questioned my ability because I’d won enough races to know it wasn’t my ability. You win races for a reason. And the reason we won the race is because Mike Beam and his boys. They have put us in a super car for the last six or seven races.”
Positions 6-10 belonged to Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarret and Terry Labonte.
Martin finished 25th, with Schrader 32nd. Pole sitter Geoff Bodine was 27th when he left the race with engine problems.
Dave Marcus of Skyland came home 28th before leaving with an overheated engine. Harry Gant and his Leo Jackson Motorsports Chevrolet was 41st after an accident sent the No. 33 car behind the wall on lap 94.
Earnhardt increased his Winston Cup points lead to 227 over runner-up Wallace.
Earnhardt has 3450, Wallace 3223 and Martin 3167 and the tour heads to Richmond this weekend.
(Jim Hammer, Assistant Sports Editor at The Citizen Times)