Originally created 07/06/97

Fast car and a little help gives Andretti first Winston Cup win



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It was a risky move, and not because John Andretti didn't think his car was strong enough.

Running second with 13 laps to go in the Pepsi 400, Andretti needed someone to follow him when he tried to pass Mark Martin because of the draft required at superspeedways like Daytona International.

And the last time he was in this situation - nine weeks ago at Talladega - Andretti dropped out of the lead pack when no one went with him.

On Saturday, he got some help, winning his first Winston Cup race in 110 starts.

"I've been saying this team is the best, especially with restrictor plates," Andretti said. "Today, we came through."

Getting a boost from Bill Elliott, the 34-year-old nephew of Mario Andretti surged past Martin and then pulled away from Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and a six-car collision behind him.

"The biggest difference was Bill Elliott," Andretti said. "If he would have chosen Mark instead of me, that would have been the end of my race. I think he figured I had the faster car."

Andretti's spotter had cut a deal with Elliott, who was one lap behind the leaders. Go with Andretti by Martin, they agreed, and if a caution came out Andretti could help Elliott get back on the lead lap.

But based on his experience at Talladega, Andretti wasn't certain Elliott would go along.

"For us, it's so hard to trust anybody," Andretti said. "So many people end up working against you. It's hard to figure out whether somebody is actually going to help you."

The way Andretti dominated the race Saturday on the 21/2 -mile track, he might find more willing drafting partners in the future.

"I think John has gained a lot of respect after Talladega," said Cale Yarborough, who won eight Winston Cup races at Daytona but won for the first time Saturday as an owner. "I think that respect will be here to stay."

Andretti clearly had the best car on an overcast and muggy day, leading 113 of the 160 laps. But it was never easy.

First he had to get by Martin. And on the restart for the 160th lap that followed a four-lap caution, he had a pack of contenders primed to make a run, starting with Earnhardt's black Chevrolet.

"The black No. 3 came up," Andretti said of Earnhardt, whose 29 Daytona victories is by far the most. "There's a lot of things to worry about."

But Jarrett - a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 - had to pass Earnhardt to get at Andretti. And when his pursuers got side by side entering the first turn, they lost the effect of the draft.

"Dale Jarrett started racing Dale Earnhardt and I said, `Man, this is ours,"' Andretti said. "And then Terry Labonte came up. I'm glad this race is over with because I think he'd have gotten me in the next lap."

Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion who started 35th, sneaked past Earnhardt on the third turn and finished second in a Chevy.

Defending race champion Sterling Marlin - who has three of his six career victories on the track - lost a lap earlier in the race after cutting a tire but managed to finish third in his Chevy.

Earnhardt was fourth, running his career-worst winless streak to 43 races.

"We thought the Daytona 500 got away from us and we thought Talladega got away from us," Andretti said. "Today, we had a car that was unbelievable."

Earnhardt agreed.

"We did all we could do," he said. "I think he was tough to pass. Everybody was sort of racing for second. He was too strong by himself."

Daytona and the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway are the only tracks where teams must figure out restrictor plates - the devices used on carburetors to reduce speeds and create close competition.

Andretti averaged 157.791 mph in a race slowed four times by 16 laps of caution. There were 16 lead changes among 11 drivers.

Earnhardt led for only two laps. Still, he was a factor throughout and was in prime position until the final caution negated a full-speed dash for the finish.

Still, he and Jarrett had to try on the final lap. But their tactics not only allowed Andretti to drive away, but Labonte and Marlin to get by.

Jeff Gordon, looking for his eighth Winston Cup victory this year, bounced off the wall in the 126th lap. He avoided losing a lap, but wasn't a factor thereafter.

Martin, a two-time winner this year who was second in points behind Gordon, took a gamble by changing only two tires during a pit stop on the 109th lap. That enabled him to lead on the restart.

After another restart on the 130th lap, Andretti went three-wide into the second turn to pull behind Martin, then passed him seven laps later.

Andretti went low with Elliott through turn one, and the race was his to lose.

Martin still had a chance to catch Gordon in series standings, but he was in the thick of the six-car pileup approaching turn three on the final lap.

Martin wound up 27th, six positions behind Gordon, whose lead in the Winston Cup standings is 54 points over Labonte. Martin is third, 56 points back.

The victory was the ninth this year for a Ford. Aside from Gordon's seven, Chevrolet has been shut out.