"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.