Bill Elliott managed to avoid disaster time and again Sunday on the way to a $1 million victory in the Southern 500 Grand National stock car race.
Elliott, driving his Ford Thunderbird, added an unprecedented $1 million bonus to the first-place money of $53,725 to run his season earnings to $1,857,243, an all-time auto racing record.
The 29-year-old driver did it when all three of his strongest competitors went up in smoke during the race.
Elliott was then able to hold off five-time Southern 500 winner Cale Yarborough at the end.
“It all turned out, but I knew if I made one mistake, Cale would be right there to take advantage of it,” said the excited Elliott.
“Well, it’s not the money,” Elliott added. “I just felt I’d like to be the first one to do it.”
Ernie Elliott, the driver’s brother, engine-builder and crew chief, said Elliott “stayed in there and dug all day long. A few years ago it was unheard of to race for money like this.”
The Elliotts took part in a huge and dramatic victory celebration as many in the Darlington International Raceway crowd estimated at 68,000 stuck around to watch Elliott collect the $1 million check from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The award was put up for the first time this year for any driver who could win three of the Big Four in Grand National racing.
Elliott won the Daytona 500 in February, the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., in May, and Sunday’s Southern 500, the oldest super-speedway race on NASCAR’s Grand National circuit.
The other Big Four event, the World 600 at Charlotte, N.C., in May, was won by Darrell Waltrip.
Yarborough, who ran the last 50 laps without any power steering in his Ford Thunderbird, said, “There just wasn’t any way I could beat him. I couldn’t race him because the car was just too hard to turn.”
It was the 10th victory in 20 starts this season for Elliott, all on super-speedway tracks one mile or longer. That equaled the record for single-season super-speedway victories set by David Pearson in 1973.
It was Elliott’s first Southern 500 victory and his second in a row on the treacherous 1.366-mile Darlington oval.
Shrugging off the intense pressure that nearly smothered him before the World 600, Elliott first ran off to an easy pole victory on Thursday, then drove confidently to the 14th victory of his Grand National career.
However, Elliott’s Thunderbird was not dominant in the 367-lap race. In fact, he played a waiting game throughout the sweltering day as Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Yarborough each took turns controlling the race. But each ran into trouble and several times Elliott narrowly avoided a similar fate.
Just past the halfway point in the 500-mile event, during the longest green-flag stretch in the race slowed by 14 caution periods, Elliott’s tires appeared to be wearing badly. He slipped back to fourth, about 15 seconds behind Earnhardt.
The always aggressive Earnhardt, who was belching smoke from his tires on practically every turn, hung his Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS on the edge throughout the race. With Yarborough leading on lap 324, Earnhardt slid sideways off the second turn, tagged the wall and slid down the backstretch.
Elliott decided to go by on the low side as Earnhardt slid along the outside wall, but the Chevy suddenly came down the banking and Elliott made it past by less than a yard.
Elliott took the lead by getting out of the pits ahead of Yarborough during the caution period, but when the green flag fell, Yarborough’s Ford shot past into the lead again on lap 324.
However, the next time around, with Elliott right behind, Yarborough’s car began spewing fluid and smoke from a broken power steering hose. Elliott’s Ford dived low on the wide track apron to get past Yarborough and regain the lead.
During the caution, Yarborough made two pit stops to allow his crew to make repairs, and he was able to stay on the lead lap and in contention.
Elliott had just passed Tim Richmond moments before the hood flew off Richmond’s car on the backstretch on lap 332, bringing out a caution flag. And the winner was starting to pull away when oil on the track, apparently from Gant’s engine, brought out the final yellow flag on lap 337.
Earnhardt’s engine finally blew on lap 338 and Gant’s went out on lap 349.
There were two more restarts in the race, but Elliott stayed on top, fending off every effort by the desperate Yarborough to move closer. It did not appear in doubt after the final green flag fell with 12 laps remaining.
Elliott crossed the finish line just .06 of a second ahead, but the issue was not in doubt as he averaged a slow 121.255 m.p.h. in the victory.
Geoff Bodine, who regained a lost lap late in the race, wound up a distant third, followed a lap down by Neil Bonnett and Ron Bouchard.
Waltrip, the two-time Winston Cup champion who came into Sunday’s race 138 points behind Elliott in this year’s championship battle, ran with the leaders until the last 100 laps when he had brake problems that cost him several long pit stops and several laps.
Long-time racing star A.J. Foyt, a rookie at the Darlington track, never was in contention, falling off the lead lap in the early going and dropping out with an engine problem on lap 263.