DOVER, Del. — On the excitement meter, the needle drifted down toward “D” (for dull) in the beginning of yesterday’s Peak 500 stock-car race at Dover Downs International Speedway. With few passes and crashes, the first half of the NASCAR Winston Cup race served as a trance-inducer for the estimated crowd of 74,000.
That Bill Elliott eventually would win was fitting, since his personality is as laid-back as a California surfer. NASCAR fixtures Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace are hot barbecue sauce; Elliott is as bland as grits.
In winning his first race of the season, Elliott drove his rivals to dreamland by dominating the way he did in 1985, when he claimed victory lane as his own territory 11 times.
Elliott tamed Dover’s high-banked “monster mile” by leading the last 149 laps of the 500-lap event. Overall, he set the pace for 364 laps as he became the first pole-sitter since Cale Yarborough in 1976 to win at Dover.
With just six caution flags for 29 laps, Elliott was able to record the fastest 500-mile average speed ever at Dover, 125.945 mph. The previous record was Ricky Rudd’s 124.706 mph in September 1987.
Yesterday’s 3-hour, 58-minute, 12-second race, mercifully the first sub-4- hour 500-miler in Dover history, basically was a three-car contest between Elliott, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt.
Martin, the Winston Cup points leader by 21 over Earnhardt, finished 1.38 seconds behind Elliott. Earnhardt, winner of Dover’s two 1989 races and a series-high eight this season, was third.
Although Elliott had not won since the final race of last season, at Phoenix 24 races ago, no one was surprised that his red and white Coors- Melling Ford was the car to beat yesterday.
Elliott had finished fourth in three of the last four Winston Cup races. Within the last two months, he was runner-up at Pocono and Talladega. The Georgian is fourth in the point standings, 413 behind Martin,
Referring to his previous 0-for-1990 slump, Elliott said, “If you’ve on the outside looking in, it hasn’t been as bad as everybody makes it out to be. It took a little time for Mike (Beam, his crew chief) and I to really work together. Mike’s a good kid (he is 34, the same age as Elliott). At the beginning of the year, he was just trying too hard.
“We had some misfortune, but we’ve been able to overcome it. We’ve been close to winning.
“This puts a lot of things to rest. This team’s been a good race team ever since we started winning races in late ’83. I knew we were going to get a win sometime this season. Today, we couldn’t do anything wrong.”
Elliott’s experience at Dover, where he won both 1988 races and the ’85 June event, helped him collect $83,100 yesterday.
“The race track changes and you only can guess what it’s going to be,” he said. “A lot of times here, it’s been 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. The car reacts a little differently on a cooler day.”
The leaders made their final pit stops during the last caution period, from laps 406 to 409, for Rob Moroso’s spin. After several unsuccessful attempts, Martin, driving the red Folger’s Ford, passed Earnhardt at 140 mph for second place on lap 451.
As Earnhardt and his black Goodwrench Chevrolet faded to third, Martin gradually trimmed Elliott’s lead from 2.7 seconds to the final 1.38 margin.
Afterward, Elliott admitted his only worry was not Martin but his fuel gauge.
“I had less than half a gallon left,” Elliott said, smiling mischievously.
Watching from the pits, Beam was not smiling.
“We’d run out of gas earlier in the day,” he said, “and I didn’t know if we could make it or not. I thought the (No.) 6 car (Martin) could make it, but I had no idea (about Elliott).”
With Elliott in command of the race, he could enjoy glancing at his rear- view mirror for the first time this year.
“I watched them (Martin and Earnhardt) pushing and shoving,” Elliott said. “There’s been a joke going around that Ford drivers were breaking into Chevrolet dealerships to see what the front end of a Lumina looks like.” Grinning, he added, “I saw one today in my mirror.”By Bill Fleischman, Daily News Sports Writer