In last year's Daytona 500, Bobby Allison watched a commanding lead go up in the fumes of his empty gas tank. But he had survived 21 years of racing stock cars, and he isn't the kind to give up. On Sunday he came back to Daytona and won. And judging from the way he did it, he should make survivor his middle name. After just 10 of the 500 miles, the rear bumper of his Buick and the front bumper of Cale Yarborough's Buick hooked—a "real hard hit," said Allison—and Bobby's bumper went flying back into the field behind them. It took five cars out of contention. Then, just past the halfway point, shrapnel from the blown engine of a car creeping into Turn One bombarded Allison. He drove into the cloud of white smoke trailing the car, wondering what was in there. It might just as well have been the checkered flag, because most of his hottest competition followed him into the smoke—and came a cropper on the debris.
Finally shades of last year with a mere half mile to go, Allison's engine fluttered in warning that he was out of fuel. But by then he could have coasted home—which he did—into the arms of his cheering crew in pit lane. There the engine died, bone dry. They pushed the car into Victory Circle.
It was a well-deserved win that was testimony to hard work as well as endurance. In 1981 Allison had narrowly lost the NASCAR championship to Darrell Waltrip, so Bobby changed teams this winter—joining the DiGard team Waltrip had quit in disgust a year earlier. Three weeks before the 500, Allison spent four days testing at Daytona, running nearly 900 miles to sort out the car. It paid off to the tune of some $370,000, his take last week counting bonuses for which the victory qualified him.
Those tests were crucial, because they taught Allison something vital about the 1982 cars. Drafting close behind the car ahead and then slingshotting past it had been a tried-and-true strategy at Daytona. But some drivers were saying slingshotting had been made obsolete by the new short-wheelbase racers. "There's something about them," said Allison. "They just get all held back when they're out in the wind by themselves. Last year we didn't notice it because we were so screwed up just trying to keep them from sailing away. But now, if you pull out of your spot to pass and get up alongside someone, man, you just don't go nowhere. And won't nobody let you back in, no hole to go into. It messes you up."
Thus the drivers had to change tactics, and those clich�s describing a line of drafting cars—"express train," "steel ribbon," "rolling thunder"—became more descriptive than ever. For most of the 500 the racers lined up single file, including Allison, who led 147 of the 200 laps, and went round and round and round, the car at the end of the file like the tail of a whip at a roller dome, sucked along by the other cars, kept alive by the draft, its driver afraid to let go because he knew that if he did he would never catch up again.
This made the racing more suspenseful, if not more action-packed. And the paradox was that because each pass meant more, the lack of passing was also more meaningful than the rampant dicing of the past. Before, they were playing. This year, they were waiting.
That the new cars weren't as stable as the older, heavier ones compounded the drivers' difficulties. A stock car handles one way when it's alone on the track, another when it's drafting, another when it's being drafted. The drivers had to fight against spinning out of the line as well as being nudged out.
Intelligence was more important than ever, with the rewards going to the men who knew best how to play the draft. They would take no long-shot gambles, make no wasteful moves. They would be conservatively opportunistic. Survival was the watchword. Given that uncertain handling and those express trains of drafting cars, there was always the possibility of a huge chain-reaction, foggy-freeway type of crash at nearly 200 mph.
Before Sunday there had been a slow several days of racing, as Daytona Speed Weeks go. Benny Parsons won the 500 pole in a slope-nosed Pontiac LeMans, like the one Allison had put on the pole a year ago. Parsons qualified for the top spot with a record average speed of 196.317 mph. Allison won the Busch Clash, a 50-mile sprint worth $50,000 to him. Yarborough and Buddy Baker won Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, Yarborough by employing the "obsolete" slingshot to zip past Allison on the last lap, Baker by staying ahead of what might be called the Waltrip- Dale Earnhardt-Neil Bonnett-Ron Bouchard Bounce. Waltrip had strayed out of the steel ribbon in Turn Three to pass Earnhardt, found he couldn't pull it off and tried to squeeze back into a hole that didn't exist. His right rear tapped Earnhardt's left front, causing Earnhardt to back off, which caused Bonnett, hard on Earnhardt's tail, to hit the brakes. That made him skid down off the banking into innocent bydriver Bouchard, causing him to slide sideways through Turn Four. Bonnett was furious at Waltrip afterward, but Darrell merely shrugged and said, "Them cats forget about all the times when you let them in." Waltrip rarely concedes the last word. He is a contentious man who has earned the nickname Jaws around the circuit.
On the eve of the 500 there appeared to be every possibility of a great race, because the leading cars were so closely matched. When the sun rose over Turn Three, it was actually visible—haze had obscured it all week—although it was cloudy pink because of the smoke from fires set by infield campers.