Before he was ‘Million Dollar Bill,’ Bill Elliott was just trying to survive Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Before his son’s late charge sent Bill Elliott scurrying to victory lane instead of the exit, before the NASCAR Hall of Famer won three Southern 500s, and before 1985 made him “Million Dollar Bill,’’ there was the night in 1977 before Elliott’s first laps around Darlington Raceway.

This was when he was just Bill Elliott from Dawsonville, Ga. He had failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 that year. He had yet to finish higher than 14th in his 15 previous starts in NASCAR’s premier series. At age 21, he was trying to find his way in NASCAR with his family’s team.

“I remember going to the hotel the night before just having knots in my stomach,’’ Elliott said.

His anxiety came from what he had to do the next day – rookie orientation. Until the early 1990s, rookie drivers had to pass orientation to attempt to qualify for the race – similar to what still takes place for IndyCar drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Darlington’s orientation included a meeting with a veteran driver, on-track testing and in later years, a video showing mistakes made by others previously.

Darlington Raceway, which hosted NASCAR’s first 500-mile race in 1950, was a notoriously difficult track to drive. The sandy asphalt chewed tires. The walls grabbed cars. The stories of peril became legendary.

“It was more intimidating than anywhere else,’’ said Elliott, whose rookie class at Darlington included Janet Guthrie. “Even more so than Daytona and Talladega because Daytona and Talladega was just wide open. You heard so much about Darlington. The Darlington stripe, the Darlington this, the Darlington that. It was such an intimidating place.’’

Elliott had run only seven of the first 21 NASCAR races in 1977. Unlike today’s drivers who often moonlight in other racing series, Elliott’s focus was strictly on NASCAR, so he had not been in a car that often that season.

“We didn’t have the money to do it,’’ Elliott said of racing in other series.

He passed rookie orientation and qualified 16th. Elliott’s first Southern 500 came on Sept. 5, 1977. He was lucky. The high that day was 81 degrees. They temperature for the 1954 Southern 500 reached 101 degrees – a record for the Darlington area for the month of September. While the temperature for Elliott’s Darlington debut wasn’t that hot, it still had that Southern humidity, which made the air heavy and sticky.

Elliott placed 10th that day, finishing 12 laps behind race winner David Pearson and two spots behind current car owner Richard Childress. The race lasted 4 hours, 41 minutes. Only 24 of the 40 cars were running at the finish with seven eliminated by crashes.

“That amazes me that we survived that,’’ said Elliott, whose winnings that day amounted to $4,930.

That race started a run of good results there. Elliott scored top-10 finishes in his first five starts at Darlington, including a runner-up finish in the 1979 Southern 500, placing two laps behind Pearson. Elliott’s collected $19,235 that day – the most he had collected in any NASCAR race to that point.

“I think I was just so grateful to finish that I was ecstatic to be second because I didn’t expect to be second,’’ Elliott said. “That overwhelmed everything else. The money was kind of another part of it and that helped my dad out at the point in time when we were trying to do it on our own. We’d go and we would get $500 sponsors. That was our big gig back in those days, so to win $19,000 was like winning the million in ’85.’’

It is that 1985 win that Elliott is remembered for most at Darlington. He became the first driver to earn the $1 million bonus from Winston for winning three of the season’s four major races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and the Southern 500. The other race was the Coca-Cola 600.

Elliott admits he felt as if he had a “fifth- or sixth-place car” that day. He led 52 of the first 100 laps after starting from the pole but fell out of the lead. It wasn’t until after lap 300 that he returned to the lead and took the point for good from Cale Yarborough 44 laps from the finish of the 367-lap race.

“I can remember being here and I was racing Tim Richmond late in one of the races and with about seven or eight laps to go, I drove straight into the wall in Turn 1 and ended up finishing third just because I wrecked,’’ Elliott said. “I just lost concentration for that little bit of instant. My biggest goal was just no mistakes.’’

He followed through that day, winning the Southern 500 for the first time. He again won the race in 1988 and ’94. No victory at Darlington was as surprising as his son Chase’s win last year in the Xfinity race. In his first race at Darlington, Chase Elliott was sixth on a restart with two laps to go.

“I thought we were done,’’ Bill Elliott said of his son’s chances to win that race.

But Chase Elliott had four fresh tires. Most in front of him had either no fresh tires or only two fresh tires.

Still, Bill Elliott was starting to head to the rental car to leave the track. Chase Elliott made his charge and passed Elliott Sadler on the last lap to win and become the youngest winner at Darlington.

“I guess it goes to show you never give up,’’ Bill Elliott said.

Darlington remains the only track father and son have scored national series NASCAR wins.

“This was always one of my favorite tracks to watch a race,’’ Chase Elliott said. “The only thing I can think is the odd shape to it and the fact that you run up against the wall. I always thought it was super cool.’’

That’s not quite how his father viewed the track that night in 1977. Eight years later, there was no place finer for Bill Elliott.