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Aumann: Final Firecracker 400 goes out with a bang

July 05, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Bill Elliott pits his No. 9 Coors car. Elliott and Rick Wilson put together a two-car draft to the front that led to Elliott's win. (Getty)

Elliott edges Wilson in finale of Daytona race on Independence Day weekend

The last Firecracker 400 at Daytona went out with a bang -- and a finish so close, even the winner wasn't sure who crossed the finish line first.

Bill Elliott, who will be driving for Turner Motorsports this weekend, came from 38th starting position to edge Rick Wilson by inches in the fender-banging finish of the 1988 Pepsi Firecracker 400, the final time "Firecracker" was used in the title of Daytona's traditional Fourth of July weekend event.

"...When [Wilson and I] were running together, we were able to just go right by a lot of people. If we hadn't got together late in the race, I don't think there was any way either of us would have been there at the end."

--BILL ELLIOTT

"I had to ask who won," Elliott said. "I didn't even know."

After a terrible qualifying effort the day before, Elliott admitted he didn't think his car was capable of staying on the lead lap, let alone running near the leaders.

"I've heard there's going to be a race, but I don't think I'll be in it, the way I've been running," Elliott said before the race. "All I can try to do is hang on to anybody or anything."

Elliott almost didn't make it past the second lap, after Alan Kulwicki blew an engine and spun in his own oil. That set off a chain-reaction crash that wiped out the cars of Brett Bodine and Cale Yarborough -- making his final appearance at Daytona -- and damaged several others.

Elliott was able to weave his way through without damage, but when the race resumed, he fell farther and farther behind. On the other hand, Wilson -- who also avoided getting caught up in the Kulwicki incident despite starting 26th -- had bulled his way to the front of the field.

Elliott was in serious danger of going a lap down, but was saved by a timely caution flag. And when Wilson had issues in the pits, he wound up back near the tail end of the field with Elliott for the restart.

It set up the perfect scenario. The two drivers had run a few laps together in practice, and quickly realized their two-car draft was quicker than the lead group running out front.

So with Elliott's No. 9 Ford leading the way and Wilson's No. 4 Oldsmobile tucked in behind, the two began to pick off car after car -- and soon they were challenging for the lead.

"The car just wouldn't run very fast drafting with anybody else or running by itself," Elliott said. "But with his car behind me, this car would fly."

After the final restart on Lap 136, Elliott took the lead two laps later -- and with Wilson riding shotgun, continually staved off challenges from the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. They stayed lined up that way until the final lap, when Wilson and Earnhardt made their move in Turn 4.

They both went to the low groove, but while Wilson was able to get side-by-side with Elliott, Earnhardt's Chevy washed up the track in front of Waltrip, slowing both cars and allowing Phil Parsons make up ground on the inside.

That left Wilson and Elliott to battle for the win. They bounced off each other several times coming through the tri-oval, sending up puffs of tire smoke as their wheels rubbed. Wilson seemed to have the advantage at first, but Elliott fought back and the nose of his car crossed the stripe first.

"I made my move at the last possible opportunity so that the guys behind wouldn't have a chance to get around," Wilson said. "I was ahead of Bill there for a bit and I thought I had him. But he came back on me.

"It was for the win, so I was going to do the touching if he was. But he just beat me."

The official margin of victory was listed as a generous three feet, although the television replay made it appear to be no more than half that. Parsons was able to squeeze past both Earnhardt and Waltrip for third at the line

Elliott was as surprised as anyone to find himself in Victory Lane, deeming it "just a miracle, that's all there is to it."

"The funny thing about these cars is you get around certain cars and they either hurt you or help you," Elliott said. "We didn't talk about it or plan it at all. But when we were running together, we were able to just go right by a lot of people. If we hadn't got together late in the race, I don't think there was any way either of us would have been there at the end."

It was the first time the speedway had hosted its summer race on a date other than July 4, moving it instead to Saturday, July 2. Hoping perhaps for a special gift on his 51st birthday, Richard Petty started 27th and finished 20th. And Patty Moise became the first female driver at Daytona in a decade, winding up 26th.

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