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By race time at midday the sky was clear and the temperature a crisp 60�. And it was a great race. At the start, all that steel-ribbon talk appeared to be so much premature silliness. They went for the lead as if the 500 were a sprint. First Yarborough, then Harry Gant (in a Buick owned by Burt Reynolds and movie director Hal Needham and called The Bandit), and then Earnhardt pulled ahead. Allison made his move on the fourth lap, and then came the incident of the flying bumper. The caution light stayed on until Lap 14, and now the express train was highballing.
Earnhardt was the first of the front-runners to go, on Lap 45. He had run out of gas—but had made it in for refueling—six laps earlier, which caused the engine to run lean and eventually resulted in a burned piston. In the role of "locomotive," Allison was finding the going a little squirrelly because of his missing bumper; its absence had changed the car's handling. But he was cutting laps at 194 mph.
In the next 100 miles he gave up the lead only briefly, chased most closely by Bonnett, Baker, Yarborough, Terry LaBonte and Joe Ruttman, the last doing extremely well in his first 500. All were driving Buicks save Bonnett, who had a Thunderbird. On Lap 105, Bobby Wawak, who had been in and out of the pits trying to get his balky engine to run right, lost it completely. Its innards blasted out the exhaust pipes and all over the track amid blinding smoke. He chugged into Turn One about 90 mph slower than the train bearing down on him.
"I couldn't see nothing but smoke," said Allison. "I mean nothing. I couldn't see the racetrack, the other cars, the wall, nothing. I knew I was going to have to go in there blind. So I just backed off and squeezed up against the wall and held my breath."
Bonnett, Allison's prot�g� and fellow Alabamian, was on Bobby's bumper at the time, and he did what Allison did. Allison had a pro behind him. Bonnett wasn't so lucky. Said Bonnett: "Bobby and I both lifted and threw up our right hands, signaling to the car behind that we were slowing down, and next thing I knew someone hit me from the rear and knocked me into the wall." He stayed pasted to the wall around Turn One, his race over.
The wreckage accumulated; cars were spinning and hitting the wall all over the place. Richard Petty went down exactly as Bonnett had, clipped and bumped into the wall. Parsons and Baker also got caught in the confusion. Bonnett and Petty were taken to the infield clinic for observation, Bonnett on a stretcher, Petty limping. They told each other the same sad story inside and came out grumbling but relatively undamaged. Petty's right foot had been badly sprained by being banged against the brake pedal during the accident.
When the green light came on again on Lap 115, Waltrip came into the picture for the first time. His car had been "loose"—sliding at the rear—for the first half of the race, but Junior Johnson had made adjustments at each pit stop, and Waltrip was snaking up through the accident-shortened train. By Lap 138, Waltrip was on Allison's tail, making moves at him—feints, actually—to let Bobby know he had arrived.
The stage was being set for a standard barnburner of a Daytona finish, and there could be no more competitive duelers than the two who had raced right down to the final event of the '81 season for the championship.
On Lap 145, Allison took the low groove, hanging out there alone, and Waltrip went by, dragging Ruttman, LaBonte and Jim Sauter with him. Allison was in fifth place that quick, but within a few seconds he was back in second. Six laps later Waltrip's engine quit; Daytona had denied him for the ninth time. The fans might have been disappointed at losing the prospect of a furious finishing fight between Waltrip and Allison, but they cheered Jaws' misfortune anyway.
"My hat's off to Bobby today," said Waltrip back in the garage. "He's taking it home. If he doesn't have any trouble, he's home free."