DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The pack is closing in on Bill Elliott, but it hasn't caught him yet.
The slender red-head from Dawsonville, Ga., won the pole again Monday for Sunday's Daytona 500, but he was far from the dominant driver he was last year.
Elliott, fighting a brisk wind that buffeted cars coming through the front straightaway, qualified his Coors-Melling Ford at 205.039 m.p.h., slightly slower than his record 205.114 set last year.
"It was warmer and windier than last year, and we had two rule changes to slow us down since then," Elliott said. "All in all, we're pretty pleased to be on the pole again. We expected someone to run faster than 205."
Geoff Bodine, in a Chevrolet with its new sloped rear window to make it look like Elliott's Thunderbird, was a surprise front-row qualifier at 204.545. This broke up the Ford front-row monopoly of last year. Cale Yarborough's Ford qualified fourth at 204.151.
The biggest surprise of the day was Sterling Marlin, who put his Hoss Ellington Chevy in third place at 204.355. Marlin, whose father, Coo Coo, was fourth in the 1977 Daytona 500, has never finished better than seventh in a NASCAR main event.
"It's a thrill for me to drive a good car like the one Ellington built for me," Marlin said. "I'm real pleased to get on the second row."
The field will be the fastest in NASCAR Winston Cup history as 25 cars qualified at better than 200 m.p.h. The previous record was 18 in last year's Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala. Only seven bettered 200 here last year.
Eight of the 25 exceeded 200 for the first time anywhere, including two-time winner Bobby Allison, who reached 202.716 in a Buick.
Pre-qualifying predictions were for several cars to hit between 205 and 207, but gusts up to 21 m.p.h. bothered most of the drivers.
Richard Petty, a seven-time winner of the Daytona 500, ran 202.589, the fastest of his career on the famous 2 1/2-mile tri-oval. He, however, was not surprised that Elliott's 205 was fastest.
Asked what happened to the fast times everyone predicted after 205s were run during testing, Petty said: "That was back in January. This is February."
"What difference does that make?"
"In February, there's inspectors looking to see what you're driving. In January, there's no inspectors around."
The most disappointed person at the speedway was defending Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who had trouble getting his Junior Johnson-prepared Chevrolet up to 200 m.p.h. He had an early speed of 199.194, then returned to the track late in the day and did a little better, qualifying at 200.316. Even so, that was good enough only for a disappointing 22nd position and followed hard on the heels of a poor performance in the Busch Clash, where he finished last in the 50-mile sprint.
"Something's going on, and I'd like to know what it is," Waltrip said. "So would Junior. First we blamed it on the car, then it was the motor, and then the driver. All we can blame it on now is the paint job. I don't know what else to say, except that we've got a whole lot of work to do before Thursday."
Elliott and Bodine have assured themselves of front-row positions in Sunday's $1,468,715 race, but the remaining 38 starters will be determined by how they finish in Thursday's two 125-mile qualifying races.
Bodine, a renegade among NASCAR's good ol' boys, is from Chemung, N.Y., where he drove modifieds until taking on the Grand National circuit in 1982. He won three races in 1984, including the Winston Western 500 at Riverside, but he has not won since.
Despite his front-row position, Bodine had mixed emotions over his performance, and what to expect Sunday.
"I had promised my people (Hendrick Motorsports) that I would get them a 205," he said, "and I didn't get it. I ran 205 Sunday afternoon in practice, but couldn't get it back today. I'm surprised speeds weren't a little faster all down the line, but I know my car was slowed down by the winds."
Bodine's car spun crazily coming out of the third turn during Sunday's Busch Clash after the front end of his new Chevy lifted.
"I was very fortunate that none of the other cars hit me," Bodine said. "For which I thank the drivers. But there were only eight cars on the track. If it had been in the 500, I would have been hit for sure.
"The new Chevy has an eight-inch gap between the bottom of the front end and the ground. That allows much too much air to get underneath the car and lift it. NASCAR says a front spoiler is illegal, but I think it is necessary for safety purposes. It wouldn't make us any faster, but it would make the car much more stable."
Elliott and Bodine agreed that handling, not speed, would be the key factor in winning the 500.
Bodine: "The 20th-fastest car could be the winner if it ran comfortable all day long and it ran through the corners with no pushing or pulling."
Elliott: "This is a handling track where you have to have the right combination, the right balance, to run good. It will come down to which guys get their car hooked up with the track between now and Sunday."
The flu bug also may have slowed Elliott. His brother, Ernie, who does all the engine work on the car, has been bedridden for three days and was not at the track Monday.
"I'm not as sick as Ernie, but I woke up at 1 a.m. and felt like I'd just driven a four-hour race with the temperature over 100 degrees," Bill said.