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Elliott Faces a Fight in Bid for Third Straight Daytona Pole

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Staff Writer

Never have so many drivers been ready to drive so fast with so little experience.

That is the prospect for today’s pole position qualifying at Daytona International Speedway for the Feb. 15 running of stock car racing’s biggest prize--the $1.5 million Daytona 500.

Two days of rain have washed away oil, grease and excessive rubber left from last weekend’s 24-hour sports car race, making the 2.5-mile tri-oval lightning fast for the 67 potential qualifiers.

Unofficial practice times during the last two months indicate that Bill Elliott’s qualifying record of 205.114 m.p.h. is in for a drubbing. Fifteen drivers have bettered that, the fastest being Kyle Petty at 209.059 in a Ford last Jan. 14.

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Elliott’s Thunderbird, now being prepared by Ivan Baldwin, who left Hershel McGriff’s Winston West championship team to join Elliott, is favored to win a third straight Daytona 500 pole. Elliott ran 208.183 on the same day Petty ran his fast lap.

“I think we’re pretty close to where we want to be,” Elliott said after his final practice lap Friday. “The rain really helped the track. We’re planning on being very busy for the next few days, but first we want to concentrate on winning the pole.”

Elliott, in what his nine Busch Clash rivals claim is over-kill, drew the pole for Sunday’s 50-lap race for 1986 pole winners.

Darrell Waltrip, three-time Winston Cup champion who has switched Chevies--from Junior Johnson’s team to Rick Hendrick’s--predicted it will take “Two-oh-ten” to win the pole.

Waltrip has been the butt of pit row bantering since turning 40 on Thursday. That, plus the fact that his new sponsor is a wash-day detergent, has prompted fellow drivers to greet him: “Hey, Darrell, I hear you’re 40 and all washed up.”

Waltrip is not the only one predicting speeds in the 210 range, but another Chevy driver, Sterling Marlin, may have put it best. “I think the pole speed will be whatever Elliott and the Fords want to run,” he said.

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Surprisingly, among the 15 cars that have bettered the track record are five makes--four Fords, four Oldsmobiles, three Chevrolets, two Pontiacs and two Buicks.

That indicates that the Ford and GM designers have done their homework in the wind tunnel, producing new aerodynamic lines to slipstream the 3,500-pound American-built cars through the turbulent air with a minimum of drag.

A significant factor in the higher speeds is a 200-pound weight reduction, from 3,700 to 3,500, for the Winston Cup cars.

NASCAR rules makers reduced the weight this year because the the high-banked speedways were wearing out tires too fast. Drivers, however, soon found the lighter cars easier to handle in the corners, resulting in even more speed.

Benny Parsons became the first driver to exceed 200 m.p.h. in a stock car in 1982, when he ran 200.176 in a Pontiac at Talladega, Ala. But it wasn’t until 1985, when Elliott showed up with his sloped rear window, that there was a mass move to join the 200 m.p.h. club.

When Elliott broke Cale Yarborough’s Daytona record by 4 m.p.h. two years ago, and then followed it up by winning 11 super-speedway races, it sent Chevy engineers back to the drawing board--and the wind tunnel. What they learned was that Elliott’s Thunderbird, with its sloping rear window, cleared the air away from the car much more efficiently than did the GM cars with vertical rear windows.

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So, last year, instead of seven drivers exceeding 200, as there had been in 1985, everyone arrived with a sloping rear window and there were 26 who qualified at that once-magic speed or better.

When Elliott found himself continually being out-run by Chevy Monte Carlos in the hands of Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tim Richmond, it was time for the Ford engineers to go back to the wind tunnel.

The result is stock car racing’s version of the ’87 T-Bird, featuring a new front end design with flush headlights, a smaller grille and pointed nose. These changes, along with the weight reduction, have given the car more stability and made it easier to drive at super-speedway speeds.

Consequently, drivers with relatively little experience at such speeds are suddenly in the pole position picture.

Davey Allison, 25, has lapped Daytona at 208.6 and Talladega at 212.2 in a new Ford. In Friday’s final practice, Allison’s 206.668 was the fastest.

Yet he is a rookie who has never qualified before for a Winston Cup race on Daytona’s tricky banking.

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Davey, however, is a second-generation driver who has lived around speed all his life. His father, Bobby, has won 82 Grand National races, including the 1978 and 1982 Daytona 500s, and his uncle, Donnie, was NASCAR rookie of the year in 1967.

In a change, qualifying will consist of only one timed lap instead of the best of two.

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