It might be a bit hard to believe, but Bill Elliott started 38th in the July 2 Pepsi Firecracker 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Daytona International Speedway. Yep, the same Bill Elliott who owns those track qualifying records. But the one-inch carburetor plate, enforced by NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega, Ala., had something to do with that. So, logically, most folks felt Elliott wouldn’t be a factor in the race.
Not so. Elliott came on to win the race, as he drove his Melling/Coors Ford Thunderbird to a thrilling, 18-inch victory over Rick Wilson in the Kodak Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Elliott himself had little hope he would do well in the race. But he has one small advantage that turned out to be a big one. In spite of the restricted carburetor, he found that his car could run smoothly and quickly through the draft when it was hooked up with – and ahead of – Wilson’s Oldsmobile. The two joined forces soon after the day’s second caution period ended on lap 116. Just before that, leader Wilson was bearing down on Elliott, threatening to put him a lap down.
But afterward, Elliott soon found Wilson and the two cut through the field like a razor. By lap 127 of the 160-lap race, Elliott had moved into third place behind Ken Schrader and Dale Earnhardt. After a caution period, which ended on lap 136, Elliott and Wilson swept around Schrader, giving Elliott the lead for the first time in the race.
For the next 22 laps, they stayed locked together. Behind them, Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Phil Parsons took spots three through five in their own personal draft. The positions never changed.
Until the last lap. Then was time for Wilson to make the move that would give him his first career victory. He started out down the backstretch and into the third turn, ducking to the inside of Elliott. In the fourth turn, Wilson nudged ahead slightly, holding the lead.
But out of the turn and into the front dogleg, Elliott found just enough power to inch ahead of Wilson as the two rubbed metal, causing whiffs of smoke to fly.
Meanwhile, Waltrip moved to the inside of Earnhardt only to discover Parsons on his inside. The three moved as one out of the fourth turn, but it was Parsons who got to the checkered flag first, with Earnhardt in fourth and Waltrip fifth.
“The only thing that saved me is that when Rick passed me, he didn’t clear me,” said Elliott. “He got to my left-front wheel with his rear bumper and when that happens, you have a chance to draft back by. That was the only thing that let me get back by him. I was doing everything I could to do that when we came off the fourth corner. I wasn’t paying attention to anything else. And when it was over, I had to ask who won. I didn’t know.”
Elliott’s win was his third of the ’88 season and no other driver has won more than twice. He entered the Daytona record books as the winner who started farthest back in the field, replacing Bobby Allison, who won the 1978 Daytona 500 from the 33rd position.
-Grand National Illustrated (January 1989)