Bill Elliott finally showed the world Sunday what everyone in stock car racing had suspected--that his Ford Thunderbird is the dominant car as NASCAR approaches the start of its $15.5 million season.
It took an early accident in the 10-car Busch Clash to showcase the power and handling of Elliott's newly designed '87 model, but once the gangling redhead got a chance to stretch the car's legs it was no contest.
Elliott averaged a record 197.802 m.p.h. for 50 miles on Daytona International Speedway's high-banked tri-oval to win the 20-lap race for last year's pole winners.
Elliott is the odds-on favorite to win the pole for the third straight time in today's qualifying for next Sunday's Daytona 500.
He was on the pole for the Busch Clash, too, but when Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd crashed less than 200 yards after the start, Elliott anticipated a restart and slowed abruptly.
Before he realized the race was continuing, five cars had passed him.
"I looked out my rear-view mirror and saw Terry (Labonte) sideways, so I got down on the grass and slowed down," Elliott said later. "I didn't think the lap was going to count. Then Cale, Darrell and those other guys just kept on going by me, so I figured it must be counting."
It took Elliott six laps to work his way up through Geoff Bodine, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and finally Darrell Waltrip.
Waltrip jumped to an early lead after the remaining eight cars resumed racing. But after he picked up a $10,000 bonus for leading on lap 5, it became apparent that Elliott was about to overtake him.
The only official lead change in the race came toward the end of the seventh lap when Elliott swept by Waltrip, who was driving his first race for Rick Hendrick after leaving the Junior Johnson team.
For the remaining 13 laps, Waltrip and Bodine chased Elliott in vain while the others straggled a half-mile or more behind. Three laps from the end, Waltrip's tires began to fade, causing his Chevy to handle poorly. Bodine, his Hendrick teammate, took advantage of the situation and grabbed the second-place prize of $21,000.
"Falling behind didn't really bother me that much," Elliott drawled. "Ya know, there weren't really that many cars out there and six places aren't a whole heck of a lot to make up in a race like this.
"Winning the Clash really does feel good and might give us some momentum, but we've got a lot of work to do. This car is not the same one we'll drive for the 500. They're both pretty equal, though, so I'm not concerned about switching.
"I can't tell ya how fast we'll go in qualifying. If I had a crystal ball, I'd go to Las Vegas and clean up. I keep hearing guys say we'll hit 210, but I think that's going to be difficult to get."
Elliott's two-year-old qualifying record of 205.114 m.p.h. appears doomed, however. Last year, with a not-so-dominant T-Bird, Elliott won the pole at 205.039.
"The '87 Thunderbird is a lot better than it was last year," Elliott said. "We've done a lot of chassis work in the past few months and we're better organized than we've ever been. We're well ahead of last year."
Elliott picked up $15,000 for leading lap 10 and $10,000 for lap 15 and $50,000 for winning on lap 20 for a $75,000 payoff for 15 minutes, 10 seconds worth of driving.
Parsons, who started on the front row alongside Elliott, apparently triggered the race's only accident when he missed a gear and spun his tires as the green flag dropped. This slowed him unexpectedly, causing chaos among the rapidly accelerating cars behind him.
Earnhardt, pinched between Rudd and Labonte, sideswiped Rudd and then caught the rear end of Labonte's car, sending it into the wall. Rudd also spun and was buffeted about so badly that the car is out of the Daytona 500.
"The car is history," Rudd said. "This is the one we wanted to run in the 500, but now we'll have to unload an entirely untested car for qualifying. I'm all right, but I'm plenty upset."
Labonte, who replaced Waltrip as Johnson's driver, will also go to a backup car because of the damage done to his Chevy.
Qualifying, which was postponed by Saturday's rain until today, will determine the first two front row positions for Sunday's 500 and the starting fields for Thursday's Twin 125 qualifying heats.
And if Elliott dominating the Busch Clash wasn't enough, the winner of the ARCA 200 companion race, Ralph Jones of Upton, Ky., drove a Ford prepared by Ernie Elliott, Bill's brother. Jones edged Bill Venturini of Chicago, who had an all-female pit crew.