Leads Ford Sweep In First Victory Of Season
After months of gray and dreary days, Bill Elliott finally found the sunshine.
The NASCAR Winston Cup driver from Dawsonville, Ga., enjoyed a welcome respite from episodes of heartbreaking personal tragedy and racing mediocrity with a convincing victory in the Pepsi 400 – a race marred by a wicked crash from which Darrell Waltrip emerged without serious injury.
Although Elliott’s Melling Racing Ford wasn’t the race’s dominant car, it proved worthy enough to come back from nearly a one-lap deficit to take the lead with 13 laps remaining in the 160-lap race around the 2.5-mile Daytona track.
On lap 148, Elliott snatched the lead away from Davey Allison, driver of the Robert Yates Racing Ford, and led the rest of the way to win by 0.18-seconds over Geoff Bodine, also in a Ford.
For Elliott, the checkered flag resulted in his 34th career win and first since the Peak 500 at Dover, Del., in September of 1990, 21 races ago.
It brought more.
Elliott could experience, again, the pleasure of winning and accepting the recognition of thousands of fans. More times than not in 1991, he had been uncompetitive; in fact, the Pepsi 400 marked only the third race in which he led laps.
And he was happy. For him, that emotion has been rare as he and his family have dealt with a series of personal losses. Last November, crewman Mike Rich was killed in a pit-road accident during the Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. On June 17, his grandmother, Audie Reece, passed away. Nine days later, his mother Mildred succumbed to a lengthy illness.
“This is for them,” said the 35-year-old Elliott. “I would have loved to have had them here to cheer me on, but I know they are in a better place.
“With my mother, it was just a matter of time. But when it was final, the hardest part was to come to grips with it. With all the support given us by the folks at home and the fans, it has brought us together as a team and a family. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life.”
As for the 1991 season, Elliott said his team never lost its eye toward its first victory.
“We’ve been focused on a lot of stuff,” said the 1988 Winston Cup champion. “What’s happened to us this season has largely been due to circumstances. We’ve run good sometimes and bad sometimes.
“Today, even with our misfortunes, we were able to overcome it. When it is your day, it’s your day. And when it’s not, it’s not.”
At first, the day seemed to belong to anyone but Elliott. He started 10th and slowly worked his way to the front, moving into second place before making his first green-flag pit stop on lap 56 to change right-side tires.
Immediately, NASCAR waved the black flag, ordering Elliott to return to the pits for a “stop-and-go” penalty. He had violated the rules by leaving pit road at too high a speed.
That nearly cost him a lap. As it was, he was buried at the rear of the field.
“It was all my fault,” said Elliott who earned $75,000. “When they dropped the jack I just took off. The problem is you are here so long you get use to going down pit road accelerating as you normally do.
“It was just my fault. I thought NASCAR warned you first and then penalized you, but I found out differently.”
The penalty wasn’t Elliott’s only problem. His car didn’t handle as he would have wanted during the early portion of the race, which was a major reason he didn’t contend for the lead with the likes of Ernie Irvan and Ken Schrader, who put their Chevrolets up front by 8.28 seconds over third-place Bodine by the time the second caution period began on lap 89.
“My car was tight at first and we were able to make adjustments,” said Elliott. “After that, we gained our handling and that made all the difference.
“I wasn’t really concerned about the distance I had lost because one time there while I was running by myself, the cars in front of me weren’t leaving me and the pack behind me wasn’t gaining.
“What worked for me was the fact that today, for 10 laps, everyone ran equal,” he noted. “Then as the race went on, most of the other cars had their handling go away. There were very few cautions, so they didn’t have a chance to work on their cars.
“My car, after we adjusted it, was perfect. I was able to flatfoot it all around the track and that’s what made the difference.”
When the fourth caution period began on lap 121 after the spectacular crash between Darrell Waltrip and Joe Ruttman in the third turn, Elliott had work his way to 11th place. Irvan was in command and remained so when the green flag flew again on lap 126, but Elliott kept moving up.
He was in seventh place by lap 130 and moved to fourth by lap 140.
On lap 142, Allison led Bodine and Elliott around Irvan between turns three and four to occupy the top three positions and bring Irvan’s dominance to an end. The driver of the Morgan-McClure Chevrolet, whose handling faded at the finished, had led 85 laps.
On lap 146, Bodine drifted high in the second turn, allowing Elliott to pass for the runnerup position. Then, on lap 148, Elliott slipped by Allison to take the lead for the first and only time in the race.
On the next lap, Bodine got past Allison.
“By that time, my car was perfect and those cars in front of me were running tight and slowing down,” said Elliott, who won with an average speed of 159.116 mph. “My car never did slow down The track went away for them and it came to me.
“When I passed Davey in the first turn I nearly spun out. Then I started taking a high line through the first and second turns because my car would get loose down low, especially when there was a car behind me.”
While Elliott’s biggest problem during the final laps of the race was to keep Bodine behind him, he had another that briefly got his full attention.
“We tried something different with my cool suit today by using a different cold water container placed under my seat,” Elliott said. “It quit about halfway into the race.
“Then with about 20 laps to go, the water was boiling. I mean, I was burning up. I never could get the thing unhooked and I tried to turn it off. I had one arm behind my head while I was driving with the other hand.
“That’s when I fell behind a bit and I said, ‘The heck with it, I’ve got to go.’”
Bodine could never catch Elliott. “I tried to work it so he could never get a run at me,” Elliott explained. “I moved up and down the track to try to mix him up.”
Bodine’s runnerup finish in the Junior Johnson & Associates Ford was his best of the season. Allison, winner of three of the last six races, held on for third place while Ken Schrader, who had led three times for 21 laps, took fourth in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet while Irvan fell back to fifth.
Michael Waltrip finished sixth in the Bahari Racing Pontiac, Dale Earnhardt took seventh in the RCR Enterprises Chevrolet, Sterling Marlin was eighth in a Junior Johnson & Associates Ford, Ricky Rudd finished ninth in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Jimmy Spencer rounded out the top 10 in the Travis Carter Racing Chevrolet. Nineteen cars completed all 160 laps.
All four caution periods were created by crashes. In addition to Waltrip, other drivers eliminated from competition included Lake Speed, Stanley Smith, Greg Sacks, Phil Barkdoll and Ted Musgrave.
The one-two-three finish for Ford was the first on a super-speedway for any manufacturer this year.
That, however, didn’t concern Elliott. His biggest concern was a needed victory.
“Considering everything that has happened to my family recently, this win is high on my list,” he said when asked how his second career Pepsi 400 victory – he won his first in 1988 – compared to others.
“Today was simply our day. The car was there and I was able to hold on to it. But I would rather not win races by overcoming problems. That’s a little hard on the heart.”
To be sure, Bill Elliott’s heart has taken enough of a beating in 1991.
By Steven Waid, Executive Editor Winston Cup Scene – Vol. XV No. 10 July 11, 1991