DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For the first time since 1970, a Yankee race car driver turned back the Good Ol' Boys of the South to win the Daytona 500, premier event of NASCAR's stock car racing circuit.
Geoff Bodine, who learned to race on his family's track in Chemung, N.Y., survived a wreck-strewn race Sunday to win by 11 seconds over Terry Labonte after his chief challenger, Dale Earnhardt, ran out of fuel three laps from the end.
The last Daytona 500 winner not from Georgia, Alabama, Texas or the Carolinas was Pete Hamilton of Dedham, Mass., the 1970 winner. Only two other non-Southerners, Mario Andretti of Nazareth, Pa., and Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst, Ill., have won here since the first race in 1959.
Bodine's win was only his fourth in Winston Cup competition since he joined NASCAR in 1982 after a career of racing modifieds in the Northeast. He had started on the front row next to pole-sitter Bill Elliott, the defending champion.
Although Sunday's 42 starters made up the fastest field in stock car history, Bodine's winning speed of 148.124 m.p.h. was the slowest since Richard Petty's 143.977 in 1979. This was caused by eight caution-flag periods for 46 of the 200 laps.
When the cars were running at speed, the pace was torrid. Late in the race, when Bodine and Earnhardt were steaming around Daytona International Speedway's high banking in a two-car draft of yellow Chevrolets, the speeds soared to more than 200 m.p.h.
After the two leaders made their final pit stop 40 laps from the end, Bodine had a five second lead but Earnhardt ran him down in 15 laps. The extra effort may have caused him to run out of fuel, a circumstance which left fans wondering if Earnhardt could have passed Bodine on the final lap with a traditional slingshot maneuver.
"We'll never know, will we?" Bodine said after an emotion-packed embrace with his wife Kathy. "I know I was getting tired of finishing second behind Dale this week and I was going to do everything I could not to do it again."
Earnhardt had beaten Bodine by a car length to win a 125-mile qualifying race Thursday and he beat him by the same margin to win the Goody's 300 sportsman's car race Saturday.
"I thought we could stretch the gas, but we didn't," Earnhardt said. "I think I could have taken him earlier, but I wanted to conserve my fuel. I was waiting for the finish.
"I was right where I wanted to be until it died between (turns) one and two. I coasted in, but the engine blew when I hit the gas coming out of the pits."
Elliott, who won 11 superspeedway races last year, lost all chance at a repeat Daytona 500 win when his Ford was involved in a 10-car accident in the fourth turn of lap 117. He was in eighth place.
Neil Bonnett, 12 laps down after a lengthy pit stop to repair his transmission, was racing with the front pack when a tire blew and he started spinning. Before cars quit sliding, rebounding and ramming into one another, Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant, Joe Ruttman and Bonnett were out of the race and Elliott's right wheel was damaged so badly that it took six pit stops to get it repaired so that he could finish the race.
During one of his stops to have sheet metal pounded away from the tire, Elliott was sent spinning into the pit wall when Jim Sauters clipped him. Elliott finally finished 13th, just ahead of the disappointed Earnhardt.
Ruttman's car suffered the most damage of any car. The former U.S. Auto Club champion from Upland, Calif., was close to making up a lost lap when the accident occurred.
"It appeared to me that car 12 (Bonnett) got sideways and began to slide," Ruttman said. "I was 20 to 25 lengths back with some cars between. I thought 12 would slide high and then clear the track so I decided to stay high. That proved to be the wrong move. Others slowed and I ended up in the wrong spot with nowhere to go."
Ruttman's car appeared to have been pummeled from all directions.
Others involved in the accident were Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Phil Parsons, Tommy Ellis and Labonte, but all of them were able to continue.
Yarborough, who was running fourth at the time in quest of his fifth Daytona 500 win, was not happy with Elliott's move in the accident scene.
"I made it through, but Elliott ran over me," Yarborough screamed. "He never backed off, he just ran right into me. My car was running decent and we still had a long way to go."
Another old favorite, Richard Petty, suffered a dislocated shoulder earlier in the race when his Pontiac slid along the outside retaining wall after a tire blew. On the fourth lap, Petty brushed the wall and tire engineers surmised that the impact upset the right front suspension and caused premature tire wear.
Only 19 cars were still running at the end of the 3 hour 22 minute 32 second race as blown engines and four wrecks took their toll.
Bodine won a record $192,715 from a $1.4 million purse, breaking the year-old mark of $185,500 by Elliott.