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Elliott delivers for Dodge

The veteran Winston Cup driver earns the Daytona 500 pole for owner Ray Evernham.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- He rolled the practice results in his hands, then tucked the papers under his right arm.

The man leading Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing was worried, or at least that was the impression Ray Evernham gave after two Daytona 500 practices on Friday.

"Right now the biggest thing I want to do is get both my cars in the race and give them a chance to race," Evernham said. "It's not time to throw in the towel. ... The pieces are there. We've just got to put them together right."

Almost by magic, everything fell into place overnight.

Bill Elliott, who joined Evernham's two-car Dodge team this season and was 20th, 25th and 13th in three practices before Daytona 500 qualifying, gave Dodge its first pole since 1978 and Evernham his first as a car owner with a lap of 183.565 mph on Saturday.

"The thing is, when you've got a lot of room to make up, you make it up by digging in and working hard," Evernham said, trying hard to dismiss the notion his team was sandbagging. "Having Bill Elliott drive your car at Daytona is not the worst thing in the world. I think he always holds a little bit."

Though Elliott's speed was the slowest for a Daytona 500 pole winner in 30 years and considerably slower than his last pole at the track (210.364 mph in February 1986), it capped a triumphant day for Dodge.

The manufacturer, returning to Winston Cup this season after a 16-year absence, wound up with two of its 10 Intrepids on the front row after Jerry Nadeau was disqualified during a post-qualifying inspection.

Stacy Compton, who qualified a career-best third in the No. 92 Dodge, was bumped to the front row.

"For us, it's been a 500-day quest to get here, to get to the next phase of Dodge's page in Winston Cup history," said Lou Patane, vice president of motorsports operations. "Getting to this point was a long hard job, fulfilled by a lot of folks including all the teams. I couldn't be prouder of where all the Dodges are placed."

Nadeau lapped the 2.5-mile track at 182.763 mph and held the second spot until NASCAR officials discovered the roof of his No. 25 Chevrolet was more than 1/2-inch lower than allowed.

Winston Cup director Gary Nelson did not announce a penalty, saying only that Nadeau's speed would be disallowed.

"There's a lot of bases to cover when you start looking at parts, trying to understand the mind of the person who built the parts," Nelson said. "Then we need to analyze it, talk to some people and come up with a decision."

Compton and team owner Mark Melling were all smiles after learning of their fortune.

"We've got a locked-in spot and that's pretty cool," said Compton, who finished 26th in his first Daytona 500 last year. "Last year was a dream come true for me to be able to race here. This year is a little bit better. We're sitting on the front row."

Said Melling: "Yeeehaa! It's incredible to be here. It's awesome."

For Elliott, an owner/driver for the previous six seasons who had little success, it was his 50th career pole and fourth in the Daytona 500.

"This one is a little more special," the 45-year-old said. "Each year you come back and achieve a new goal and it's a little more special with how things happen.

"To come back here and sit on the pole, I think it's more deserving for these guys than it ever was for me. They're the ones that have put in the dedication and effort week in and week out that's made all this program happen. Ray coming in and supplying and believing in us."

Elliott and Compton can breath easier than the rest of the drivers in the garage.

The front row will not change, but the remainder of the 43-car field for the Feb. 18 race will be determined by the Twin 125s Thursday, and provisionals.

"I've always said in the past that if you come to Daytona and get out here and run well ... and run competitively, it can set the stage for the rest of the season," said Elliott, in search of his first win since the Southern 500 in 1994. "This is one hurdle of what we needed to make the next step."

* * *

DAYTONA 500: Noon, Feb. 18. TV: Ch. 13.

Bill Elliott

CAR: No. 9 Dodge.

HOMETOWN: Dawsonville, Ga.

RESIDES: Blairsville, Ga.

AGE: 45

WIFE: Cindy

CHILDREN: Starr (23), Brittany (8), Chase (5)

CAR OWNER: Ray Evernham

TEAM: Evernham Motorsports

CREW CHIEF: Mike Ford

CAREER WINSTON CUP POLES: 50

CAREER WINSTON CUP POLES AT DAYTONA: Five

LAST WINSTON CUP POLE BEFORE SATURDAY: Exide Batteries 400, Sept. 4, 1997, Richmond International Raceway.

FIRST CAREER WINSTON CUP POLE: CRC Rebel 500, April 10, 1981, Darlington Raceway

CAREER WINSTON CUP STARTS: 623

CAREER WINSTON CUP WINS: 40

WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONSHIPS: One (1988)

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