Long Pond, Pa. — Bill Elliott knows the value of a fast lap, and hopes to parlay his latest into a record-setting victory today at Pocono Raceway.
"In any race as competitive as all these cars are, it's important to start up front," Elliott said.
But he realizes the qualifying lap Friday that gave him a record-tying fifth pole on the mountaintop won't be worth much unless his Dodge is still healthy in the waning laps of the Pennsylvania 500.
Elliott was reminded of that a week ago, after his pole-winning effort at New Hampshire International Speedway became a 34th-place finish when a carburetor failed him.
Under NASCAR's new one-engine rule, a premium is placed on engine durability. Still, Elliott won't attempt to maintain a pace below all out when the green flag waves today.
"I don't know if you can get away with that," he said. "Everybody seems to run to the limit all day long."
Ricky Rudd did plenty of that last month, dominating the latter stages of the Pocono 500. But he developed a tire problem in the final five laps and lost the race to teammate Dale Jarrett.
Rudd was upset, but at least he had an opportunity to race, something he believes was denied to all in New Hampshire. Poor track conditions last Sunday turned the New England 300 into a demolition derby of sorts.
"It's nice to have a racetrack that we can race on," he said. "You can run two wide."
In fact, drivers after restarts can run four or five abreast on the front straightaway at Pocono, dicing for position. Rudd insists no contender is eliminated because of track position on the unique 212-mile triangular layout.
"If you get pinned up in the back you can go to the front," said Rudd, who starts astride Elliott on the outside of the front row in the $3.7 million race.
Elliott also isn't concerned about going to the front should he be shuffled in the 43-car field at Pocono. The track is essentially three drag strips connected by sharp turns, giving faster cars more opportunities to pass than most places on the Winston Cup circuit.
But Elliott, who tied Ken Schrader's track record with his fifth career pole at Pocono, realizes patience can be a liability if a driver doesn't try to stay close to the front.
"That's important, especially late in the race," he explained. "If you get too far behind and don't get any cautions you just can't made up the ground."
While Rudd's Ford figures to be the biggest threat as Elliott tries for a record fifth victory at Pocono, there are other contenders with solid credentials at the track.
Elliott is one of four drivers who have won four times at Pocono.
Dale Jarrett, who starts 15th, has won three times at Pocono.
Also expected to make strong bids are Michael Waltrip, a winner three weeks ago in the Pepsi 400. His Chevrolet will go from the third spot on the grid, inside Elliott's teammate, two-time Pocono winner Jeremy Mayfield.
Elliott has just one of his 41 career victories since 1994. But he escaped what amounted to six years in racing purgatory by selling his team to Ray Evernham and coming aboard as pioneer in Dodge's return last season after a decade and a half out of Winston Cup competition.
Elliott won a race in 2001, but has become more competitive as this season has progressed. He has four top-10 finishes in the last eight races and stands 10th in points his best showing since finishing eighth in 1997.
"Bill has been the solid car week in and week out," said Mayfield, in his first season with Ray Evernham Motorsports. "I think now you'll see the 19 moving back up."