This time, ‘Mr. March’ Beats Gant To Score Fourth Consecutive Victory of ‘92
It doesn’t matter how he does it, the fact remains he does it.
NASCAR Winston Cup driver Bill Elliott wins. And in so doing, he has once again put himself into the record book.
Armed with a strong Junior Johnson & Associates Ford and a well-planned strategy to conserve tire wear, Elliott raced to his fourth straight win of 1992 with a victory in the TranSouth 500.
Elliott thus became one of only five drivers to have won four consecutive races in NASCAR’s modern era, which dates back to 1972. The first was Cale Yarborough in 1976. Then Darrell Waltrip accomplished the feat in 1981. Ironically, both were competing out of Johnson’s Ingles Hollow, N.C., shops.
In 1987, Dale Earnhardt scored four straight wins and last year, popular Harry Gant earned the nickname “Mr. September” when he won four times during that month.
Ironically, it has been Gant whom Elliott has beaten in the last two events – at Atlanta and Darlington. In the TranSouth 500, Gant brought his Leo Jackson Motorsports Oldsmobile to the checkered flag 8.8 seconds behind Elliott.
In ’92, Elliott has won in many ways. He dominated the Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham, N.C., and luck dumped victory into his hands in the form of a caution flag in the Motorcraft 500 at Atlanta.
At Darlington, it was strategy. Elliott paced himself as much as necessary to reduce tire wear, which became a significant factor in the 367-lap race around the 1.366-mile track.
Then he moved into the lead for good on lap 323 when Gant took a bold gamble and pitted for four fresh tires only 37 laps after his last routine stop under green. At the time of his stop, Gant was nearly 10 seconds ahead of Elliott.
The move put Gant a lap down to Elliott. But he was gambling the fresh tires would provide his car with enough speed to make up the lost distance – and propel him into the lead if Elliott made a final pit stop.
He never did. And while Gant eventually moved up to second place, he wasn’t close to Elliott at the finish.
“As I said earlier, I would have never believed this would happen,” said Elliott, whose winnings of $64,290 have propelled his season earnings to a whopping $537,515. “This year we’ve been lucky and we’ve been good. Today, we were decent. We struggled along and as the day went on our car got better while everyone else’s seemed to fall off.
“I kept telling myself all day to keep cool; keep cool. I knew I had a decent car and if I didn’t win, I’d have a decent finish anyway… and here we are in victory lane.”
Elliott, whose victory increased Ford’s winning streak to nine in a row going back to October of last year, won the race with a record speed of 139.364. That was due to a low number of caution flags, just four for 21 laps – unusual for Darlington.
At the race’s start, Elliott charged from his No. 2 starting position to snatch the lead away from Johnson teammate Sterling Marlin before the end of the first lap. He would lead 15 circuits before Davey Allison, in the Robert Yates Ford, took the lead in turn three.
It was Allison who became the race’s dominator. Before it was over, he would lead six times for 160 laps. However, late-race handling problems relegated him to a fourth-place finish, one lap in arrears.
Elliott, meanwhile, would lead only 19 laps until the 276th lap.
“The car was a little loose at first,” he explained. “When Davey went by me and then Brett (Bodine) went by, I thought it would be best to try to find a comfortable place to run.
“I’ve always raced the track here and not other competitors and that’s what you have to do.”
Elliott was banking on his strategy to do at least two things: Conserve his tires and put himself in a position to win.
Elliott joined the leaders on pit road during the race’s fourth caution period, which began on lap 243 following Brett Bodine’s spin in the second turn. At the time, he was running fourth behind leader Gant.
When the race restarted on lap 247, he was second, due to some fine pit work by his crew. He chased Gant until, on lap 276, he took the lead in the first turn. He would lead the next 29 laps, his strongest showing of the race at that point.
When he was on fresh tires, Gant had arguable the fastest car in the race. So when he fell to fourth place by lap 286, due largely to tire wear, he elected to be the first to pit under green.
On lap 298, he regained his lost lap when he passed Elliott. Elliott then pitted on lap 305 and in so doing Gant was propelled to the No. 1 position, well ahead of Elliott, Mark Martin in the Roush Racing Ford, Alan Kulwicki in the Kulwicki Racing Ford and Allison, the only cars on the lead lap.
Gant’s lead was significant. But two things were clear: It would not hold the longer his tires were subjected to the rigors of the race and he would certainly have to pit again.
Elliott, meanwhile, would not have to make the trip down pit road before the race’s conclusion.
So, Gant did the only thing he could if he hoped to win, On lap 323, he pitted while well in front.
“The key to wining was tire wear,” said Elliott. “Harry’s car ran real well for 25 or 30 laps and then the tires would go away.
“When he pitted, it was the only thing he could do to win the race. He wanted to get fresh tires and even if they went away, he wanted to run as hard as he could and hope that I would drop off enough for him to catch me.
“Tim (Brewer, crew chief) told me on the radio that Harry had stopped. By that time, my only concern was the guys behind me and how strong they were.”
Upon Gant’s absence, Martin moved into second place and was just 1.3 seconds in arrears. He was in a battle with Kulwicki for position, which suited Elliott just fine.
“When those guys got to racing behind me, it helped,” Elliott said.
Meanwhile, Gant’s fresh tires rocketed him forward. By lap 340, he was in fourth place. On lap 350, Kulwicki passed Martin for second place but was relegated to sidelines by lap 359 when his overheating engine failed.
At that time, Gant slipped by Martin for second. It was as far as he could go.
Perhaps it would have been different if there had been one more caution period.
“I think if the final caution had come out 10 laps to go, the advantage would have gone to the first guy out of the pits,” said Elliott. “With 25 laps to go, it would have been a different situation.
“I think then it would have all gone to the guy who had the right setup on the car at the time, whether it be me, Harry, Mark or whoever. We just would have played the circumstances as they rolled out.”
That, however, wasn’t needed.
Defending TranSouth 500 champion Ricky Rudd finished fifth, one lap down, in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet while Brett Bodine was sixth in the King Racing Ford, also one lap down. Dick Trickle was seventh in the Stavola Brothers Ford, Geoff Bodine was eighth in the Bud Moore Engineering Ford, Terry Labonte was ninth in the Hagan Racing Oldsmobile and Dale Earnhardt took 10th in the RCR Enterprises Chevrolet.
The attrition rate was high, as 21 of 39 cars were running at the finish. Darrell Waltrip’s DarWal, Inc. Chevrolet was severely crippled after contact with Geoff Bodine’s Ford on lap 174 sent it into the first-turn wall. Waltrip returned to the race, but his car succumbed to overheating and he finished 24th.
Pole winner Marlin whacked the third-turn wall on lap 25 after his Ford fell victim to a flat right-front tire. Marlin continued to race, but finished 22nd.
Engine failure claimed Ernie Irvan, Kyle Petty, Bobby Hamilton, Dave Marcis, Greg Sacks, Hut Stricklin, Wally Dallenback Jr., Richard Petty, Jimmy Spencer and Dave Mader III.
Elliott can become the first Winston Cup driver to win five races in a row since 1971 if he can claim victory in April 5 Food City 500 at Bristol, Tenn., traditionally a productive track for Johnson’s cars.
Richard Petty and Bobby Allison both streaked to five consecutive wins in ’71. And given Johnson’s record at Bristol, it is logical to assume Elliott has a solid chance to join their company.
“You know, a person asked me if I was going to win four in a row and I said I’d let ‘em know on Sunday afternoon,” said the 36-year-old Elliott, who now has 38 career victories. “Now if I’m asked about five in a row, I’ll say let’s wait until Sunday afternoon.
“We’ll just do the best we can, race the best we can and hope we have circumstantial luck.”
So far in 1992, that has been more than enough.
By: Steve Waid, Executive EditorWinston Cup Scene — Vol. XV, No. 41 April 2, 1992