Several drivers hitting milestones at historic Darlington
Friday, March 14th 2003, 12:00 am
News On 6
DARLINGTON, South Carolina (AP) _ Bill Elliott doesn't believe this weekend at Darlington Raceway will be anything special, even though he makes his 700th start where he enjoyed a defining moment in his career.
The 47-year-old driver became ``Million Dollar Bill'' when he collected the first Winston Million bonus for winning the 1985 Southern 500.
``I'm not really big on making a lot out of things like this,'' Elliott said. ``I guess when you sit back and think about it, though, it's something to hang your hat on.''
Elliott isn't the only driver reaching a milestone in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, the 100th Winston Cup race at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.
Terry Labonte will be making his 750th start, Kyle Petty his 650th and Dale Jarrett his 500th. And the drivers have a unique history at the ``Track Too Tough To Tame.''
Labonte became the youngest winner at Darlington at 23 when he took the 1980 Southern 500 for his first Winston Cup victory.
Jarrett, who has three Darlington victories, is part of the only father-son combination to reach Victory Lane at the track. Ned Jarrett won the 1965 Southern 500.
Petty is known to have negative feelings toward the 54-year-old facility.
``I think I've heard that line several times that he wants this place turned back into a fishing pond,'' teammate John Andretti said.
Petty admits to a love-hate relationship with Darlington.
``And I guess the place has always felt the same about me,'' he said
In 43 starts at Darlington since 1981, the son of seven-time series champion Richard Petty has only five top-10 finishes. His best was a sixth in 1991.
The elder Petty is the series' career leader with 1,177 starts. Dave Marcis is a distant second at 882. Racer-turned-broadcaster Darrell Waltrip is third with 809, followed by Ricky Rudd with 771 and Labonte.
His first Winston Cup start came in the 1978 Southern 500.
The 46-year-old Labonte has not finished in the top 10 at Darlington since the TranSouth 400 in 1998.
Elliott remembers having many exciting runs at Darlington. He won on the track five times, but people still talk about the Southern 500 that won him $1 million.
``Winning the million back in '85 was certainly one of the highlights of my career,'' Elliott said. ``You just can't put too much emphasis on one race, though.''
Jarrett's memories of Darlington range from watching his father's series-title-clinching victory at the Southern 500 in 1965 to his own try at matching Elliott as winner of the Winston Million bonus in 1996.
When it was time for Jarrett to make it around Darlington, he talked to Harry Gant and studied David Pearson and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Pearson is the track's career leader with 10 victories, and Earnhardt is second with nine. Gant has four wins.
``Those are three different styles, but I picked up a little from each of them,'' Jarrett said.
One of Jarrett's most vivid memories came seven years ago, when he arrived for the Southern 500 with chance to win the bonus. There was a lot of hype surrounding the race, and Jarrett thought he had the car to win it.
But he slipped on some oil and hit the wall, spoiling any hope of victory.
``It was still a special time and one that I don't think I'll ever forget,'' said Jarrett, who won Darlington's spring race in 1997, '98 and 2001.
There's evidence Elliott sees his time winding down. Last month, he removed himself from NASCAR's Most Popular Driver contest _ an award he's won 16 times.
``I feel like when I can't hold up my own end, then I need to go on down the road,'' Elliott said. ``It's a different era though. These younger guys keep you on your toes. It makes it fun to go out there every week.''