During the final practice session on the eve of Sunday's Daytona 500, Geoff Bodine was out cutting 200-mph laps on the 2.5-mile track. Suddenly he got on the radio to his crew chief Gary Nelson. "I don't know what you guys have done to this thing," Bodine said, "but whatever it was, it's perfect. Don't change a thing. Let's button it up and go racin'."
They went racin', all right, and made a little bit of history in the process. When Bodine, a 36-year-old upstate New Yorker with 18 years of struggle, starving and sacrifice behind him, drove his Chevy Monte Carlo SS into Victory Lane, a trip worth $192,715, it was the first time in 16 years that a driver from north of the Mason-Dixon Line earned that cherished parking space. Even before the commercialized ritual of celebration could begin, Bodine's wife, Kathy, who had shared the hard times, leaned in the car window and pressed her face against his for what seemed like 10 minutes. When she came up they both had wet eyes. "It wasn't really the world's longest kiss," explained Bodine over the P.A. system. "We were recapping our life together of trying to get where we were at that moment."
Which was precisely where two other drivers besides Bodine had figured they would be. Things got started one week earlier when one of those others. Dale Earnhardt, pushed his Monte Carlo to a first in the Busch Clash, a $180,000 50-mile race for pole-position winners of the previous season. Bodine spun spectacularly, controlled it beautifully and came back to finish fourth. The next day, Bill Elliott bagged the pole for the 500 with a qualifying speed of 205.039 mph in the red-hot, red-and-gold Thunderbird that won 11 races last year, including Daytona. Bodine was second-fastest with 204.545. They made up the front row of the fastest field in stock car Daytona history—26 of the 42 starters qualified at better than 200 mph.
There's always something new at Daytona, and this year it was the new Detroit. The Motor City is back—in racing, that is—in a big way now that high performance is valued on the highways again. Last year General Motors took a beating on the speedways from Ford and its Thunderbirds, primarily because of the superior aerodynamics of that model. This season GM has countered with a special Chevy called the Monte Carlo SS and cars from Pontiac, Buick and Olds-mobile that have similar aerodynamic refinements. They all have a fastback-style rear window that cuts a cleaner hole in the air at 200 mph and puts more down-force on the car's rear deck, resulting in increased stability. "Now we know what Elliott has had on us the past two years," said Bodine after running his slippery new Monte Carlo SS for the first time.
Sunday brought marvelous weather to Daytona; it was cool, sunny and breezy. The 125,000 fans were on their feet as Elliott got the jump on Bodine at the start, chased at more than 200 mph by about 80 tons of steel. Bodine took over on the third lap and held the lead until Earnhardt dove low in Turn 1 on Lap 11, smoking by so easily that it looked as if his blue-and-yellow car was superglued to the low groove. Elliott began drifting backward from his strong start, the handling that clicked for him all last year escaping him this day. Neil Bonnett took Elliott's place in his red-and-white Monte Carlo, and the three new Chevys dominated the first 80 of the 200 laps.
Earnhardt proudly calls himself a racer, not a driver. The distinction might be fuzzy to some—especially some of his fellow drivers, who call him Ironhead for the way he bulls into the spot he wants. And his team, chock-full of characters to complement him—led by owner Richard Childress, a respectable driver in his time—came to Daytona superbly prepared, as the low-groove handling of his Monte Carlo proved.
Unlike Earnhardt, seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty likes to run in the high groove, right up against the wall. It looks scary but he says it's safer up there; when you blow a tire the impact is softer because you don't have to go as far to hit the wall. After his dislocated shoulder was put back into place in Halifax Hospital when he did just that on Lap 63, he was probably even more convinced. It could have been a lot worse for the King.
Petty's crash brought the second of six yellow flags over the first 112 laps, the rash of blown engines and solo spins upsetting the flow of the race and slowing the average speed to around 140 mph. (Altogether 46 laps would be run at caution speeds, holding the race average to 148.124 mph.)
Bonnett had lost a bunch of laps with gearshift problems but was blasting back when his Monte Carlo SS blew a tire entering Turn 4 on Lap 116. That sent him into an uncontrollable spin in front of a charging horde, triggering the biggest 500 crash in years, yet no one was injured. Buddy Baker, who was in the middle of it, said, "Everything's fine. Then I'm looking at the end of the world going on in front of me."
At least 10 cars got caught amid the thick tire smoke and caroming suspension parts. Taken out by the chain-reaction events along with Baker were Bonnett; Cale Yarborough, driving a strong race in a year-old car after he had totaled his new T-bird in practice; Harry Gant, who went airborne briefly; and Joe Ruttman, whose green Buick would be shortened by about half after smashing head-on into the wall at the top of the 31-degree banking. That was before it was used as a ramp by Gant's green Monte Carlo. Superstition says green is an unlucky racing color; score one for the doomsayers. Gant summed things up moments after the crash. "I hit somebody and then somebody hit me, and we all went round and round," he said, as calmly as if he were relaxing at his kitchen table. A bit less pacific was Yarborough, who had been creamed from behind by Elliott. "I had the wreck missed," Yarborough said, "but Elliott ran into me. He never backed off."
"I sure didn't mean to hit him, but there he was," replied Elliott.
Spinning his way through this high-speed demo-derby was last year's point champion, Darrell Waltrip. "There were parts flying everywhere. I literally ducked flying objects twice," he said. Still, Waltrip went on to finish third.
Elliott survived the collision with Yarborough, but then was kicked while he was down, so to speak. After some quick repairs, his car was whacked and spun around on pit row by the Pontiac of Jim Sauter. With that, the T-bird was knocked out of kilter enough for Elliott to be out of the hunt, and it took several yards of silvery duct tape just to hold it together so that he could finish the race.
When the smoke cleared, Bodine was leading Earnhardt, and they raced inches apart until Bodine pitted on Lap 159 for what he hoped would be his final gas stop. He also had his right-side tires changed. Pit time: 15.2 seconds. Earnhardt came in on the next lap and got the same service, but he stalled his engine and the stop took 19.6 seconds. Back out on the track at 200 mph, that 4.4-second difference meant a quarter-mile lead for Bodine.
Now Earnhardt demonstrated what he means when he says he's a racer. With a little help from his friend Benny Parsons, whom he drafted, Earnhardt stood on it and ran Bodine down. Helping him in this task was the fact that the set of tires that had just been put on Bodine's car actually had hurt rather than helped its handling.
By lap 174, Earnhardt was less than one second back, close enough to tuck into Bodine's draft, and the closer you get, the stronger your car gets sucked up by the one ahead of you. In two more laps Earnhardt was where every driver wants to be toward the end of the 500—on the rear bumper of the leader.
Bodine, of course, wanted to get out of Earnhardt's cross hairs. Nelson was instructing him to slow down, which he was doing...and doing...and doing. Someday a driver is going to get down to the 55-mph speed limit in order to get out of the lead on the last lap at Daytona. But Earnhardt, staying in position to swoop past on the final lap, was having none of it. In fact, he was using all the tricks to upset the handling of Bodine's car—positioning his own car to disturb the air around Bodine's rear wheels and thus make his handling even more squirrelly. The brain game.
Bodine looked like a goner. On Lap 197, about two minutes away from making the slingshot move that the fans knew was coming, Earnhardt pulled off the track and headed down pit row. His gas tank was empty. Earnhardt suddenly slid to a tire-smoking stop, nearly running over a crewman, got a couple of lightning-quick gallons and a squirt of ether in the carburetor, but the engine fried itself as he tried to get back to racing speed. It had burned a piston from running lean when the gas was low. Elliott, after finishing 13th, would push him in.
Bodine and his crew, fearing they would soon hear the same dry cough from his engine, held their breath for the final two laps, but he had enough gas—with .9 gallon to spare—and the balding Yankee reintroduced NASCAR to the Northeast.