Not An Overnight Success

Several times, Terry Elledge had come oh so close to winning the Daytona 500.

And each time, something unforeseen would happen and would leave him with an empty feeling in the pit of stomach. That’s why, on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, the veteran head engine builder for Bill Davis Racing wasn’t taking anything for granted until the checkered flag.

It wasn’t until Ward Burton crossed the finish line to win the 44th Daytona 500 that Elledge was able to relax, smile and celebrate at Daytona for the first time in his long career.

“With the experiences I’ve had and as good of racecar drivers that I’ve worked with, I had never before won the Daytona 500,” Elledge said. “There have been a lot of things happen late in races before that have kept my drivers from winning, so it was very nerve wracking during the last few laps of Sunday’s race.

“I told myself I didn’t even want to think about winning until it actually happened, but when Ward was on the backstretch, I did. He was looking pretty strong, and I knew that only a cut tire or something like that would keep him from winning. When he finally got past the line, it was a great moment for me and for this Bill Davis”

Elledge, who has built racing engines for 25 years, worked with the likes of drivers Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner prior to taking his talents to Bill Davis Racing in late 1997.

In 1979, Petty won the Daytona 500, but not with a motor built by Elledge.

“That was the strangest thing,” Elledge said. “We went down to Daytona and we were very confident about our chances to win. But during the better part of Speedweeks, we were having a lot of bearing problems with the engine, going through inspection and what not, and with the re-assembly of the engine.

“So, Richard decided to take the engine out of the car and put someone else’s motor in. As it turns out, he won the race, so I really had nothing to do with that victory.”

In 1993, after moving over to Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt finished .16 seconds behind Dale Jarrett in the Daytona 500 in a car with a Terry Elledge-built engine. Earnhardt finished second again to Sterling Marlin in 1995, and second once again to Jarrett in 1996 by just .12 seconds, after he had won the pole for the race.

In 1997, Skinner won the Daytona 500 pole, but finished a disappointing 12th.

The following year, Earnhardt finally won the “Great American Race,” but without Elledge’s help. Elledge had moved on to Bill Davis Racing in an attempt to help make Burton’s team a competitive entity in the Winston Cup Series.

“With as good a driver as Dale was, it was very disappointing for us not to be able to win the Daytona 500 while I was there,” Elledge said. “They won it the very next year after I left, and I was glad to see that. They deserved it many times over. But obviously that wasn’t very satisfying for me. But I believed that some day we’d be in the same position over here at Bill Davis Racing, and that’s finally happened.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of everybody here and the direction this program has taken. The effort that everyone has put into the program is phenomenal. The results of all our hard work are really beginning to show now.”

Burton certainly gives credit where credit is due.

“Terry and his guys have given us great motors over the past few years, and (Sunday) was certainly no exception,” Burton said. “Terry and everybody in his group kept saying, “This car is going to stay at Daytona. As it turns out, that’s going to be the case.

“A lot of the credit for this victory goes to Terry and his guys because they’ve worked extremely hard to produce some of the best motors in the business. You just can’t say enough about them.”

Burton has won three Winston Cup Series races since Elledge’s arrival at BDR. He won the spring race at Darlington Raceway in 2000, then won the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington last fall before Sunday’s Daytona 500 triumph.

The engine department at Bill Davis Racing has 24 employees. Elledge said he and others didn’t arrive back in High Point, N.C., until 3 a.m. Monday morning., but all 24 employees were back in the shop at 8 a.m. to prepare for this week’s Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

“We’ve been celebrating, but everybody knows they’ve got a lot of work to do,” Elledge said. “We’ve had some past success at Rockingham, and there’s no reason we can’t go back there and win this weekend. Two in a row, wouldn’t that be something?”

Indeed. But for now, Elledge can revel in his first Daytona 500 triumph. In fact, he’ll have the rest of his life to do so.

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