After a yellow because of the debris that fell off Ron Bouchard's bashed Buick, everybody charged on the green. Earnhardt, who had fallen back because of a pit stop, bumped Elliott in Turn 1, got him sideways and passed into second, with Gant in first. As Gant weaved down the front straight, Earnhardt dove below him to take the lead—and was immediately repassed by Gant.
And they were only halfway through the race.
Earnhardt was soon leading Elliott, Gant and Yarborough, in that order, teasing them by hanging it out sideways, his door in their windshields. Then Gant slowed with a smoking engine, and after another yellow, Yarborough briefly ran off with the lead. So Earnhardt executed the "impossible" again: He rubbed the wall in Turn 2, headed down the back straight cockeyed enough for Elliott to pass, then repassed Elliott on the inside of Turn 3 for second place.
Five laps later, tires still smoking, Earnhardt finally did it, losing control in Turn 2. His right rear whacked the wall. The Chevy turned around and slid backward in a cloud of blue smoke, its left side gnashing the wall. The car rotated again, then headed nose-first across the track as Elliott skimmed by at about 140. "I don't know how close it was because my eyes were shut," Bill said later.
Elliott's ringside thrills weren't over. Six laps later, coming off Turn 4 on Yarborough's rear bumper, he was blinded by a plume of white smoke from Cale's car. Apparently thinking it was a million-dollar puff, Elliott's crew hugged each other at the sight. But too soon. It was only a blown power-steering connection, and after Yarborough's crew cut off the belt, their man was back in the hunt. Meanwhile, Earnhardt's crew was banging on the Monte Carlo's black grille, which was pinched like a fighter's swollen eye. After all that, at the next green, the order was still Bill, Dale and Cale.
The final 40 laps must have been frustrating for Earnhardt and exhausting for Yarborough, because with conked-out power steering, driving his T-Bird was "like trying to steer a freight train." If anyone could manhandle a train, Cale could. But push it past Awesome Bill? Yarborough knew then and there. "No way I could beat him," he said later.
Tim Richmond's hood blew off on the back straight, floating down like a red kite. Then Gant's engine blew, for another yellow. Earnhardt stopped each time for more work on his grille, since his car was overheating. But the final yellow was his own. His hot engine blew, and Iron-head got his last Darlington Stripe on the Turn 3 wall. "No way Elliott could have beat us today," was about all he said. "But that's old Darlington."
Now the real suspense began. With five laps to go, Yarborough was five car lengths back. The fans were on their feet waving things and screaming for the driver they voted Most Popular last year. Million Dollar Bill. Yarborough stayed put in second. At the end of a day that saw 20 lead changes among nine drivers, Elliott bagged his bread.
He was the only fast guy not driving a crippled car at the finish. "We didn't outrun 'em today, we outsurvived 'em," he said. There's not much difference at Darlington.