DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Before Bill Elliott took his turn in pole qualifying Saturday for the Daytona 500, he joked with his new Dodge teammates about the day in 1987 when he set the qualifying record of 210.364 mph.
"I told them of all the things I've done, I was most impressed with myself the day I ran 210 here," Elliott said. "In 1987, when I ran 210, when you left pit road, you didn't know if you were coming back. Now you know you're coming back. You just don't know when."
Rules invoked in the past 14 years have taken nearly 27 mph off the qualifying speeds at Daytona International Speedway. But one thing remains the same: At any speed, Elliott is a master at getting around the track at Daytona.
His lap of 183.565 mph wouldn't have made the starting lineup 14 years ago, but it was more than fast enough to win the pole for this year's Daytona 500.
His dominance in time trials stirred memories of two decades ago when he clearly had an advantage on NASCAR's biggest raceways. After posting a best lap of 181.138 mph in two days of practice - 19th-best of the 52 entries - Elliott improved his speed by more than 2 mph to usher Dodge's return to stock-car racing in grand style.
"This is a little more special than the other (three) poles I've won here," Elliott said. "The next step is all a part of making this a stronger, more organized race team, and that's what it's going to be all about."
Elliott's red Dodge Intrepid hadn't shown any speed during months of testing and two days of practice at Daytona. When Elliott ruled superspeedway racing 15 years ago, he rarely showed the full power of his race car until it was absolutely necessary. Old habits, it seems, never die.
"I accused Mike (Ford, crew chief) and Bill of sandbagging," said Ray Evernham, who was selected by Daimler/Chrysler to spearhead the return of its Dodge brand to Winston Cup after a 17-year absence. "The thing is, when you've got a lot of room to make up, you make it up by digging in and working hard. Having Bill Elliott drive your race car is not the worst thing in the world. I think he always holds back a little bit. We had to gain some, and they just worked hard.
"Somebody's going to do well in qualifying; somebody's going to do well on Thursday (during the qualifying races) and somebody's going to do well in the 500. It might as well be us."
The hard work done in the past couple of days apparently didn't include any shortcuts. NASCAR officials were relentless in their inspection process, sending several cars back to the garage for modifications and one car to the bottom of the qualifying list after time trials ended.
That car, driven by Jerry Nadeau, had the second-fastest speed in qualifying at 182.763 mph. An hour after the session, NASCAR disqualified the time after discovering his Chevrolet Monte Carlo was more than a half-inch too low.
"Some of the suspension parts, we have in our possession right now," said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition. "Every car will move up one spot, and the No. 25 car (of Nadeau) will be on the bottom with no time listed. It will say `disallowed.' When a car is low, it goes faster, and this car is low."
Crew chief Tony Furr, no stranger to trouble with NASCAR, could be fined if the sanctioning body determines suspension parts purposely were altered to beat the rulebook. Furr was fined $50,000 at Daytona in 1997 while working for Cale Yarborough Motorsports and driver John Andretti for using unapproved carburetor studs.
Nadeau's problems were received with a sympathetic understanding in the garage area.
"I'd be a little upset if NASCAR wasn't looking real hard at my car," Evernham said. "You've got to be real, real close."
Stacy Compton benefited the most by moving from third to the outside pole.
"It's all part of the game," he said. "You've got to take that chance. After all, this is the Daytona 500."
Nadeau declined to comment before leaving the raceway.
With Nadeau shuffled to the end of the line, Compton's speed of 182.672 mph locked him into the starting lineup. Like Elliott, Compton was aboard a new Dodge Intrepid.
"We were concerned whether we were going to get our lap in," Compton said. "NASCAR had problems with our rear spoiler, and we had to take it back to the garage and fixed it. We fixed it like they asked, and it put us in a bind. We didn't know how the car was going to react."
Of the top 10 qualifiers, four were in Dodges, three were in Chevrolets, two were in Fords and one was aboard a Pontiac. Dodge, which posted only the 18th-best speed during a two-day test session here a month ago, qualified first, second, sixth and seventh.
Only the front row was locked into the starting grid for the Daytona 500. The bulk of the field will be determined by the results of two 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. Six spots will be reserved for the highest qualifying speeds still not in the race, and the final seven positions will go to the highest-ranking cars from last year's owner points.
"By moving up to second, it changes everything we have to do the rest of the week," Compton said. "We don't have to worry about the race on Thursday. We can concentrate on getting our car to work good in traffic. Now there's not a lot of pressure on us."
Reach Don Coble .