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Before restrictor plates, Bill Elliott set a winning pace that will never be equaled

Bill Elliott starts the 1987 Daytona 500 from the pole, a race he would go on to dominate and win. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When you or I say the word "fast," it sounds like, well, "fast." When Bill Elliott says fast, it sounds more like "phaste." There are two reasons for that. First, he's from Dawsonville, Georgia, and people from the southern edge of the Chattahoochee Forest don't talk like anyone else. And two, Bill Elliott's actual version of fast isn't the same as it is for us mere mortals.

In the 1987 Daytona 500, held 30 years ago this month, "Awesome Bill" was so fast he was indeed phaste.

"Somebody will ask about those speeds back then, and I guess now it sounds crazy," the NASCAR Hall of Famer recalls. "I mean, we were ... we were going really, really fast."

How fast? Elliott won the Daytona 500 pole position with a speed of 210.364 mph. All but five of the 42 cars who made the starting grid qualified at more than 200 mph, but only Elliott topped 210. The qualifying speeds were so stunning that they sparked a shouting match between Ford and General Motors about unfair aerodynamic practices and safety.

They even managed to overshadow the news story that dominated the start of Daytona Speedweeks: the absence of Hendrick Motorsports driver Tim Richmond due to a mystery ailment.

See? Phaste.

"The year before, we'd won the pole too. I think 1987 was our third Daytona 500 pole in a row. [He's right; it was.] But in '86, we only went 205 miles per hour, so in '87 we'd made a big, big jump," says Elliott, who did indeed use the word "only" to describe driving at 205 mph. "If you'd come to me the year before and said we could come back and top 210, I would have laughed at you. But when I came back in from running those laps, it was like, 'Man, wow. That was phaste.' "

Elliott's speeds continued to be described with a "p-h" one week later in the race itself. Even with four caution periods, the event's average speed for the day was a smoking 176.262 mph. Perhaps the pace was so torrid because everyone was working so hard simply to keep up with Elliott.

He ended up leading 104 of 200 laps and defeated Benny Parsons, driving for Hendrick Motorsports as a sub for Richmond, by three car lengths. The only reason the margin was that close was because Elliott had to soft-shoe the closing laps to save fuel.

"Bill was so fast back then that I remember Dale [Earnhardt] saying to me that if we were going to beat him, we were going to have to get inside his head," remembers Richard Childress, owner of Dale Earnhardt's Chevy. "We tried everything. And we ran well that day.

"But everyone knew that unless Bill had some sort of trouble, we probably weren't going to beat him."

Early in the race, Earnhardt's boxy Chevy streaked up to the rear bumper of Elliott's bullet-sleek Ford Thunderbird and gave him a shot, just because.

"He hit the heck out of me," Elliott said at the time.

Earnhardt claimed he never touched him, but instead got close enough to pull the air off of his spoiler and shake him loose. In 1987, that wasn't a regular thing. To Elliott, it felt like he'd been bumper slammed.

"I scared the hell out of him," Earnhardt bragged to reporters. "That little boy will never forget that deal."

It was the first real glimpse of the character that would go on to become known as The Intimidator, a reputation he galvanized throughout 1987 via 11 wins and the now-legendary Pass in the Grass run-in during The Winston all-star race with ... Bill Elliott.

Earnhardt's strategy to set up shop in Elliott's brain wasn't limited to Daytona. He employed it all season long, ultimately winning the Winston Cup championship as Elliott finished second in the standings with six victories.

The only driver to put a dent in their two-car dominance was Richmond, who returned briefly midseason and won two straight races, including a nail-biter over Elliott at Pocono, before once again vanishing. He eventually lost his battle with AIDS.

But Earnhardt did not win the 1987 Daytona 500. Elliott did, by going faster than any stock car has ever traveled around the World Center of Racing before or since.

That May, driving the same car that won Daytona, Elliott blistered his way around the larger Talladega Superspeedway at an even phaster 212.809 mph. He also won that race, but few remember that victory. What history recalls about that day was Bobby Allison's horrifying helicoptering into the frontstretch catch fence. When NASCAR returned to Daytona that July, the engines on the Cup Series cars had been fitted with horsepower-choking restrictor plates.

That's why Elliott's speed records at both racetracks will likely never be topped. It wasn't until October 2013 that a race car of any kind surpassed his Daytona mark, when a modernized, turbocharged prototype sports car ran 222.971 mph.

Elliott's '87 ride was a No. 9 Coors Light-sponsored stock T-Bird held to the ground by a tiny spoiler, held to the asphalt by four bouncy, flexy bias-ply tires and pulled around the track by a small block engine handcrafted in a cinder-block race shop in rural Georgia.

That Ford remains so revered it's the car that was chosen for display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame when Elliott was inducted in 2015.

"I don't even want to think about how fast we might go now if they took that restrictor plate off," Elliott says. "With radial tires and all these aerodynamic engineers and all that. In 1987 [brother and engine builder] Ernie was getting 600 horsepower, and that was massive. Now they're making 850. Rusty [Wallace] ran 228 one time at Talladega, and that was like 10 years ago. No one out this weekend needs to be going that fast."

Among those out there will be Elliott's son, Chase, along with Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Unlike their fathers, they don't fight or play head games. They're teammates, driving for Tim Richmond's former employer, Hendrick Motorsports.

But like their fathers, they are starting up front in the Daytona 500, the two occupiers of the front row and both on everyone's short list of 500 favorites. Chase is on the pole for the second time in only his second try.

Since 1981, only three drivers have won back-to-back pole positions for the Great American Race, and two of those three are Elliotts. Bill won the Great American Race from the No. 1 starting spot in '85 and '87. Chase, who was born nearly 10 years after his father's '87 victory, appreciates all of the symmetry and similarity. Now he's eager to add to his family's Daytona legacy.

"From what my dad tells me, I'm not sure going 210 mph in one of those cars back then was all that fun," the 21-year-old says. "But honestly, I don't care how fast I'm going as long as at the end of the race I'm going faster than the other 39 guys."

All due respect, kid, if you're going to beat them all in the season's biggest race, fast won't be enough. Ask your old man. You're gonna need to do it like he did 30 years ago. You're going to need to be phaste.