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Reflecting on the Daytona 500

By Geoff Bodine
January 26, 2015

Geoff Bodine
Photo by NASCAR Media Group.

(Preface: February 16 will mark the 29-year anniversary of Geoff Bodine’s victory in the Daytona 500. In his debut article, Bodine shares his perspective on running in NASCAR’s biggest event and the accomplishment of winning the race in 1986.)

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s largest and biggest event. We all want to win on any given Sunday, but that’s the race every driver wants to win.

When you qualify into the Daytona 500, it’s a huge relief at first, then you start mentally and physically preparing for the race. You start thinking “how’s my car going to run? Am I going to miss the big wrecks?”

After winning that race in 1986, the first thing I thought was “wow, I just accomplished my goal.” Winning that race didn’t mean I’d be closer to retirement, but rather, fuel me to win it again. It’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

Gary Nelson was the crew chief for the team. We were working out of a shop Darrell Waltrip had built near the Chatlotte Motor Speedway. The months leading up to the 1986 Daytona 500, I would be at the shop working with the guys. There was even one morning I didn’t leave till 2 A.M. That’s how hard we were working and how serious we were about getting ready for the 1986 season.

We had tested in Daytona and we were really happy with how it went. That was first year with the slope-back window in the Monte Carlo. The year before, the Ford’s, especially Bill Elliott, dominated the competition. But after testing, we knew we would be competitive.

In that day, we didn’t have the amount of cars teams have in their fleets today. Teams had a couple speedway cars, a couple intermediate cars, a short track car and a road course car if you were lucky. Our team might have had 15 full-time employees.

We qualified well, but in the qualifying race, we were faster. Back in those days, with no restrictor plates, you could get a run and slingshot by someone—that was fun.

The cars were so fast, the tires would wear down faster and you’d have to lift in the corner; you were going through the turn sideways, you’d have to lift to make it work.

In the qualifying race, I was flying by Dale Earnhardt in turn three. The car slid up the track a little bit. It got sideways and started getting more sideways, and I was spinning coming off of turn four. I didn’t hit anything and nobody hit me.

We came in to change the tires, and by the end of the race, worked our way back up to second. We didn’t wreck the car, and made some adjustments for Sunday’s race.

I’ll never forget, after the race, Bill France Jr. came up to me and said “hey, how are you doing, lucky?” I said, “what do you mean, Bill?” And he said “well, that was just luck coming off that corner; you didn’t hit anything.” I said “that wasn’t luck, that was skill. That was all planned out.”

When you slide, some of its luck but a lot of it is knowing what to do when you put the brakes down. So leading up to the 500, it was an exciting Speedweeks for us.

Our biggest competition was going to be Dale Earnhardt, and it proved to be true in the race. He and I went back-and-forth for the lead.

As the story goes, I came in on the final pit stop, and my team did a gas only pit stop. I was hoping we’d change tires because we had run a lot of laps on them. The tires back then were much different than today’s tires. The track was the old track, so that wore out the tires more.

I was almost begging Gary to give me tires, but we didn’t have the time. Earnhardt came in and he slid through his pit. Back then, we didn’t have to slow down coming down pit road. He slid through his pits, so his team pumped him gas. They were telling him where I was relative to him. With him being in a hurry, he left premature, so his tank wasn’t as full as it should have been.

We knew it was going to be close, stopping when we did to have enough gas. By him sliding through, and not having enough fuel, that’s why he ran out at the end.

On the last lap, I found two cars in the draft. It might have been Phil and Benny Parsons. But it was two cars drafting, and we were short on fuel. When Earnhardt ran out, I could just slow down. I slowed up, and didn’t want to pass them.

I knew I was pretty much going to make it; tears were in my eyes and emotions were rolling. When I crossed the line, that’s when it all broke loose.

It didn’t sink in that I had won the Daytona 500 until I crossed the line under the checkered flag. I know better than to celebrate prematurely.

When I got to Victory Lane, it was pretty amazing. I’m very fortunate and very thankful to win that race early in my career.

The next year, I was leading with a lap to go, and ran out of gas on the last lap. That one really hurt, especially to be close to two-in-a-row.

I pushed Dale Jarrett to win his first Daytona 500 in 1993. Dale Earnhardt was leading, Jeff Gordon was a rookie, and he wouldn’t pass him. Earnhardt was getting looser and looser but Gordon was still loyal to him.

Coming off of turn four to get the white flag, Jarrett pulled out and I pushed him by. He needed drafting help to get by. I had a big head of steam and got under Jarrett in turn one and two. Sterling Marlin was behind me and I was hoping he would push me by Jarrett. I looked in the mirror and Sterling wasn’t there; his car wasn’t handling as well so he had to let up.

Down the backstretch, Jarrett pulls around me and Earnhardt followed him. All I needed was Sterling to stay behind me, and I was going to win that Daytona 500, but that didn’t happen.

In 2002, I had a great opportunity with the Miccosukee car with James Finch. With a few laps to go, Ward Burton was first, I was second and Elliott Sadler was third.

I hit something through all the commotion on the front stretch under caution. I told my crew chief, Marc Reno, that I ran over something, and wasn’t sure if I had a flat tire, but I’m not going to pit.

I took off on the restart, and we were really really fast but the car didn’t go. I had it wide open; I wanted to bump into Ward to try and make a move but I couldn’t even touch him. Before the checkered flag, Elliott pulled outside of me and got by me. I finished third.

What ended up happening was I ran over some debris and it smashed the left front fender way in. Any more laps, I would have lost more positions; I was a wounded duck out there.

That’s such a hard race to win. We all want to win that race. That weekend in 1986 paid about $200,000. Today, if you win, it’s over $1.5 million, and you fly around the country to do the various shows.

Driving into Victory Lane is a feeling of tremendous accomplishment. When I see whoever wins driving into Victory Lane, I remember 1986.

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