"There seems to be a rule of thumb in Winston Cup racing," said 33-year-old Bill Elliott before Sunday's Atlanta Journal 500, which would determine this year's champion in stock car's toughest division. "You've got to lose a championship before you can win one." Because he had already been a loser—in 1985 he had a NASCAR circuit-high 11 victories but watched Darrell Waltrip win the title on points—Elliott figured that now he had the edge.
Elliott's rival down to the wire this year was Rusty Wallace, who was contending strongly for the first time. Wallace looked at the race differently. Trailing Elliott by 79 points—4,358 to 4,279—going into the 500-miler on the high-banked, 1.522-mile Atlanta International Raceway, Wallace figured the pressure was on Elliott, who needed only to finish 18th to clinch the cup. So, said Wallace, the race was Elliott's to lose.
Wallace's strategy was simple. "I've got to come out with both barrels blazing," he said. "I've got to take the pole, lead the most laps and win the race. That way if Bill does win the championship, at least I'll be able to say I did everything I could."
And that's exactly what happened: Both drivers did what they had to do. Wallace sped to a track-record 179.499 mph to take the pole in his Pontiac Grand Prix, and then he ran off with the victory by a comfortable 3.3 seconds over Davey Allison, in a Ford Thunderbird. After qualifying a balloon-footed 29th in his Thunderbird, Elliott cruised to the most memorable 11th-place finish of his career. He won the title by 24 points over Wallace.
NASCAR enjoyed a banner year, both competitively and commercially. Fourteen different drivers won the 29 races in five different makes of car. Attendance records were broken as often as lap records. Southern-style stock car racing was establishing itself in the Northeast, where the Watkins Glen, N.Y., event in August drew more fans than the famed Formula One races there ever did, and in the Southwest, where a first-time event in Phoenix, held earlier this month, attracted more spectators than Indy Cars have in two dozen years of racing there.
The emergence of Wallace has undoubtedly contributed to NASCAR's recent success. He's 32, with the appearance and enthusiasm of a 16-year-old, which was his age when he began driving stock cars in his native St. Louis. Wallace will talk obligingly with reporters, and he never dodges his fans. Like three-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, his best buddy on the circuit, Wallace has a tire-smoking style that keeps fans on their feet, but he doesn't crunch as many fenders as Earnhardt.
Contrast Wallace's showmanship with Elliott's style. The new champion approaches racing like a Wharton School grad. On the track he's smooth, smart, efficient and restrained. Sometimes he's not even noticed—until the finish, when he drives into victory lane.
In Atlanta, however, Elliott was the crowd favorite. A local boy who grew up 40 miles up the road in Dawsonville, he is the first Georgia driver in 33 years to be king of the stock cars. "All of North Georgia must be here for the race," he said. "I think they moved down whole towns."
Elliott's cautious run into 11th place was not universally appreciated, however. His detractors granted it was the smart thing to do—he barely allowed his car to get near another on the track—but this was supposed to be a race, not a business-school case study. Afterward, Elliott's strongest emotion was relief. "All the years leading up to today weren't as long as this race," he said.
As for Wallace, the win was his fourth in the final five races of the season and concluded an explosive late-season run at Elliott. Now that Wallace has lost a championship, his shotgun is loaded for 1989. "Bill better have all his nuts and bolts tight next year, because I'm going to thrash his tail," he said with a grin that guarantees the circuit will be as lively as usual in '89.