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At the end of the first lap of Sunday's Daytona 500, Bobby and Davey Allison, father and son, raced down the front straightaway side by side. They were leading the pack. Four-hundred-ninety-seven and five-tenths miles later, they were again on top of the heap. Bobby's Buick, however, was about two car lengths ahead of Davey's Thunderbird. This distance was what 27 years of experience had provided, and it was all he needed to win his third Daytona 500.
But experience was not enough for one of Bobby's contemporaries in the 50-and-over club. In the first of two 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday, Richard Petty was involved in a wild spin in Turn 2. The King, who has won a record 200 NASCAR races, including seven Daytona 500s, was mystified by what had caused his Pontiac Grand Prix 2 + 2 to come so suddenly unglued. "I don't know what we're going to do if we don't get something figured out," said Petty. "These cars are pretty good when they're running by themselves, but get them upside another car and you can't control them."
As if his qualifying spin weren't frightening enough, on Sunday, Petty, who was driving the same dicey Pontiac, came out of Turn 4 on Lap 106 a bit out of shape and was nudged from the rear by Phil Barkdoll's Thunderbird. Then Petty was unavoidably clouted by A.J. Foyt's Oldsmobile. What followed was a heart-stopping series of nose-standing pirouettes, followed by six barrel rolls, as Petty's car shed sheet metal and tires in front of the main grandstand. Despite all the shrapnel, no spectators were hurt, thanks to a recently reinforced 10-foot-high screen of wire webbing that held fast against the flying debris.
On the track, however, chaos reigned. Traveling at 180 mph or better, drivers tried to maneuver their way through the mass of spinning cars. Petty's blue No. 43 was just slewing to a halt sideways in the front straight, when along came Brett Bodine, who thought he would escape the melee unscathed. But Bodine's Ford cut a rear tire on a piece of metal and was sent careening into Petty. This collision sent Petty's car whirling into the cement outside wall.
Finally, it was over. Surely Petty, 50, the most popular and most successful driver in NASCAR history, had suffered massive injuries. His crew chief, Dale Inman, who is also his cousin, tried to reach him on their two-way radio. "I asked how he was, and held my breath," Inman recalls. "Richard said, 'I'll talk to you when I get my breath.' "
After a quick examination at the track hospital, Petty walked into Halifax Hospital Medical Center in Daytona Beach for a more thorough examination—and he walked out of it a few hours later. Before leaving, he jokingly told a nurse, "If there had been a long enough caution, we could have gotten back and finished the race."
When racing resumed after 21 laps under the yellow caution flag, Allison, also 50, wasted little time seizing the lead again. In his wake came defending NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt; 1980 Daytona 500 winner Buddy Baker, who is also in his fifth decade; Darrell Waltrip, 41, a three-time NASCAR point champion; and Davey Allison, 26, who was the NASCAR Rookie of the Year last season.
Because of a new rule instituted by NASCAR to slow down the cars—this year they were fitted with carburetor restrictor plates that held top qualifying speeds to a bit more than 193 mph, as opposed to last year's 210—the art of cooperative drafting was back in vogue. Relying on the magic of aerodynamics, drivers would run nose-to-tailpipe in packs to help boost the speed of every member of the pack. Those who got out of line were left behind. Buddy Baker discovered just that when he attempted to pass Bobby Allison for the lead late in the race and failed. By the time he could get back in line, his Oldsmobile had fallen to ninth place.
The last of seven caution periods, which would hold the average speed to 137.531 mph, the slowest since 1960, ended with 10 laps remaining. The Allisons had the only cars strong enough to win, so it would be a 25-mile battle between father and son. Before the race, Bobby was asked what his strategy would be if he found himself in the lead on the final lap. "Hold it down and keep going, and dare the other guy to make a try at you," he said. Davey met his dad's dare, but his Thunderbird didn't have the oomph.