DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — New faces, the fastest American stock cars ever built and good ol' Bill Elliott will share attention today when NASCAR opens its 29th season with its premier event, the Daytona 500.
Davey Allison, 25, starting his first Daytona 500, and Ken Schrader, a newcomer to the front echelon of stock car racing, are the new faces.
Allison, son of former Winston Cup and Daytona 500 champion Bobby Allison, will start on the front row as the second fastest qualifier.
Schrader, a former U.S. Auto Club sprint car and dirt track champion, will start on the inside of the second row after winning a 125-mile heat race last Thursday.
The fastest field in Daytona history is the result of aerodynamic changes made after extensive wind tunnel work by Ford and General Motors engineers, along with a 200-pound weight reduction in the cars.
Then there's Elliott, the reed-thin red-haired driver from Dawsonville, Ga., whose Ford Thunderbird has made observers start thinking '1985' over again. That was the year Millionaire Bill broke the qualifying record, won the heat race and was an easy winner in the 500 en route to winning 11 NASCAR races.
After winning the Busch Clash last Sunday with an overpowering performance in the 20-lap sprint, Elliott erased his own lap record for the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval with a speed of 210.364 m.p.h. in Monday's trials, more than a mile an hour faster than any other driver here. Davey Allison was next at 209.084.
Elliott's win streak, however, ended when he lost one of the 125-mile heat races to Schrader--but only by four inches.
"How can you bet against Elliott and the Fords?" said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR champion who is still looking for his first Daytona 500 win in 14 tries. "That doesn't mean the Chevys won't be in there battling, though."
Elliott, Schrader and Davey Allison are all driving '87 T-Birds with a new sloping front end.
Bobby Allison calls them "cucumbers" because of their shape. Allison will start in a Buick from the third row alongside Waltrip.
Waltrip is part of a potent three-car team of Chevrolets entered by Rick Hendrick, a car dealer from Charlotte, N.C., with four dealerships in Southern California.
The other Hendrick drivers are defending champion Geoff Bodine, who won both the International Race of Champions Friday and the Goody's 300 for NASCAR Grand National cars on Saturday, and Benny Parsons, a veteran who won the Winston Cup championship back in 1973 and came out of semi-retirement to win Thursday's second 125-mile heat race.
Many of the drivers are apprehensive about the increased speeds, and how the lighter cars will handle in the heavy traffic of a 42-car field.
"Most of the cars look and feel pretty good and comfortable, but when you get around other cars, it gets unpredictable," Elliott said. "When you're all by yourself, everything's fine, but then you pull up alongside somebody and the car feels totally out of control."
The cars were lightened 200 pounds, from 3,700 to 3,500, because they were wearing out tires too quickly.
The race, first of NASCAR's $15.5-million, 29-race season, is expected to draw more than 150,000 spectators and a national TV audience (Channel 2, 9 a.m.).