DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Although he was nearly 500 miles away, Bill Elliott could practically hear the old siren Thursday afternoon at the Dawsonville Pool Room as it echoed through the North Georgia mountians.
The routine of Elliott wins and sirens wailing had become a forgotten routine until Elliott drove his McDonald's Ford Taurus to a victory in one of the 125-mile qualifying races leading up to this afternoon's Daytona 500.
It didn't seem to matter the race only established the starting lineup for the Great American Race (12:15 p.m., CBS) or that Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace were true to their pre-race gentleman's agreement with the winner to play follow the leader around the Daytona International Speedway for all 125 miles.
Elliott, once so daunting, hadn't won since 1994. The same man who won 11 races in 1985 and holds the NASCAR Winston Cup Series single-lap qualifying record at 212.809 mph in 1987 and only enjoyed one top-five finish in the last two years.
Fans familiar with the tradition that started in 1983 at the Dawsonville Pool Room have sent owner Gordon Pirkle cans of spray lubricant and machine oil to keep the siren in working condition during Elliott's insufferable drought.
Thursday's race, however, provided the mechanical elixir that, at long last, had Elliott talking about winning again -- and sirens blaring.
"I think it was very critical (for Elliott to start the season strong)," Elliott said. "For our team, as hard as they have worked through the winter to be able to come out and qualify third and win the 125 and do what we needed to do, it was important. It was a crucial point for us."
Elliott's run on Thursday will allow him to start the Great American Race from third place. The front row of Jarrett and Rick Rudd was set in pole qualifying a week ago.
Jarrett qualified at 191.091 mph; Rudd ran 190.384.
The next 28 positions were determined by the finishing positions from the two 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. The tail end of the field was filled with the six fastest qualifying speeds still not in the race and seven provisional exemptions.
Starting next to Elliott's Ford will be Mike Skinner's Chevrolet Monte Carlo in fourth place. Fifth is Rusty Wallace, followed by Ward Burton in sixth, Tony Stewart in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eighth, Mark Martin in ninth and Michael Waltrip in 10th.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon is 11th and 1990 winner Derrike Cope is 12th.
The top-eight starters all share a common thread -- experience. All have at least 110 career starts, and all are at least 38 years old.
Most of the top starters share another common thread -- a 2000 Ford Taurus.
Four of the top five starters are in a Ford, sparking a new chapter in the never-ending debate between Ford and Chevrolet.
"NASCAR has made a mistake and they're not willing to fix it," said Rick Hendrick, who owns three cars in the starting lineup. "I know they're in a tough spot, but this is not good for the fans, the sport or the drivers, the owners, anybody. It's imbalanced. When you take some of the best speedway drivers out of the picture and they're running for eighth or 10th place, it's tough."
There are three 2000 Monte Carlos starting in the top 10.
A concern for every car in the 43-car starting lineup are the mandatory shocks required by NASCAR. In the past couple years, teams have built special shocks for Daytona that are so soft they don't rebound. That allows the car to settle low to the race track to reduce the amount of aerodynamic drag.
With cars riding a little higher, the front end tends to lift in the corners after the tires get hot. The lift creates a condition known as "pushing" -- similar to when a car won't turn on a patch of ice.
"You've got to make your car handle at Daytona," Elliott said. "This is kind of a unique circumstance because you'll see several cars breakaways because they'll have a handle on everything."
Dale Earnhardt wasn't as diplomatic, saying, "It's the worst racing I've seen at Daytona in a long time. They took NASCAR Winston Cup racing and mde it some of the sorriest racing. They took the racing out of the hands of the drivers and crews. They killed the racing at Daytona. This is a joke, it's a joke to have to race like this."
Elliott has won the Daytona 500 twice, but not since the 1987 season. And yet, he's confident he can find his way back to Victory Lane.
"I feel we can win," Elliott said. "There's a new group of people there we've got that can do it. That's if everybody comes together because you've got a lot of teams running well right now. Plus, you've got to have a little bit of luck on your side.
"It means a lot (to run up front again). I feel like this is more for the guys that worked to put this car together than me beause they made it easy for Bill Elliott to sit in Victory Lane (after the 125-mile qualifier). All the guys witht he long hours and hard work and the weekends they didn't get off, to come down here and do this is a reward."
To break the doldrum of the past five years, Elliott decided to shake things up. In the offseason, Elliott decided not to hire a traditional crew cheif. Instead, several crewmen will make decisions by committee.
He's also coming into a season with a lot of questions about his future. McDonald's announced last year it would not renew its contract with Elliott in 2001, and there's been consistent rumors around the garage area that Elliott will jump out of a Ford after 25 years to drive a new 2001 Dodge Intrepid next season.
Elliott refuses to talk about the Dodge deal -- neither confirming or denying he will work with Ray Evernham.
"We put ourselves in this position with the way we've finished races in the last couple years," Elliott said of the persistent distractions. "Things happen for a reason and I don't know if (losing McDonald's) was a wake up call or not. Nobody needs to tell me to run better when I'm running bad. I want to run better when I'm running bad. Nobody has to tell you.
"But we need to make this year count. If ever a year counted, this year needs to count. Ford's made a lot of good changes over the winter. They came down here with a great race car, just like when we came down here two years ago with a bad race car."
What's ahead for the 44-year-old driver is a msytery. But the Dawsonville Pool Room will keep the siren ready, just in case.
"We only run the siren for two or three minutes when Bill wins a pole," Pirkle said. "But if he wins the 500, I've told everyone in town they better watch their dogs because I'm going to run that siren for a long, long time."
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