Just give the champ the keys After a traumatic year, Allison primed for Daytona

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Davey Allison is looking forward to tomorrow. He will climb inside his Thunderbird, pull the straps around his body as tightly as he can, and then relax.

"It will be the most peaceful time of the week for me," said Allison. "When I turn the switch and start the engine, there will be only one thing to think about, one thing to concentrate on.

"It will almost be a relief. I can clear my mind and think only about the race car."

Allison goes into tomorrow's 35th Daytona 500 with a distinction none of the other 41 competitors can claim. He's the defending champion.

It is not a little thing. Winston Cup drivers can go through their entire careers without ever being able to say it.

"It's one of the most elusive races to win," said Allison, as he enjoyed a gourmet lunch of shrimp scampi and roasted corn, prepared by his Texaco team's cook. "And the biggest thing about winning here is that you don't have to wonder if you're ever going to win the Daytona 500. It was a big relief. If you go out here and ask every driver what one race he'd like to win more than any other, most of them would say this one."

For Allison, last year's victory was one of the good things from a year filled with emotional and physical trauma.

The trauma list:

* Lost his grandfather, Edmund "Pop" Allison, April 1 after a long illness.

* Lost his brother, Clifford, to a racing accident at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 13.

* Crashed at Bristol on April 5 after leading for 50 laps. He fractured ribs, bruised a lung and tore shoulder muscles and ligaments.

* Crashed at Martinsville on April 26, reinjuring his ribs.

* Won the All-Star race in Charlotte, N.C., on May 16, but crashed with Kyle Petty just past the finish line. Allison was knocked unconscious. Afterward, Allison said he felt like he'd "been beaten with a baseball bat at a gang fight where [his] gang didn't show up."

* Suffered his worst wreck of the year July 19 at Pocono International Raceway. His Ford flipped 11 times; the car was totaled. Allison broke a forearm and his collarbone, shattered a wrist and suffered severe swelling and bruising to his face and head.

* Finally, on Nov. 15, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Allison was caught in a Turn 4 accident with Ernie Irvan, forcing him to the sideline. The accident cost him a chance at the Winston Cup championship.

"We're anxious to go on and do the best we can and put last season behind us," said Allison, who will start 11th in the 41-car field. "Everyone knows what happened. There isn't anything you can do about it. Losing a grandfather and a brother -- it happens to families everywhere. I never once asked why should it happen to me. It happens to everyone."

Every family isn't the Allisons, however. Davey's father, Bobby, gave up racing after he was almost killed in a 1988 wreck in Long Pond, Pa.

Davey Allison finished third in the points race last year, 63 points behind champion Alan Kulwicki. He won five races and collected $1,955,628. Not a bad year, considering his hardships.

He likes knowing he has a good pay check, but the money isn't his first priority. When he is finished with his racing career, Allison won't be interested in being listed as the top money earner.

"I'd like to have as many wins and championships as possible, but as for the way I'm viewed by other people in and outside racing, I'd like them to say I was fair, that I worked hard and that we did the best we could do in all circumstances. I feel like we've lived up to all three of those at this point."

It was Daytona that boosted his team and allowed him to maintain his momentum despite last season's traumas.

Now, Allison said there are just a few handling kinks he'd like to work out of his Texaco-Havoline Ford by tomorrow. Otherwise, he said, the car is ready.

And Allison is nearly back to full health. His wrist is at 95 percent of full motion and his grip is almost completely back.

Last year, as the season progressed, Allison became everyone's sympathy racer. It is not in his disposition to enjoy such status. Championships, he said, "aren't won with sympathy. They're won with performance."

And performance is vital to victory here. Surviving the early laps to reach the finish is precarious work. A year ago, Allison benefited because three of his toughest challengers -- Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Irvan -- decided to go three-abreast in the second turn on Lap 62 of the 200-lap race and crashed.

To have an opportunity to win tomorrow, Allison knows he has to use all his patience and experience. And Allison said his chances win here and challenge for the Winston Cup title this season are as good as they were in 1992.

"But will we win it again?" he repeated. "In my opinion, it's highly unlikely that anyone will ever again win more than three Daytona 500s in their entire careers. I've got one and externally it doesn't make any difference. My fans might be a little more excited, but the fans of the other drivers are still their fans, not mine. And here in the garage, no one treats me any differently. No one is going to give me a break because I won last year. I'm still just a little pain in the butt.

"The difference is all on the inside. In knowing you've done it and in knowing we have the ability to do it again. If we do our job right, we can do it again."

When Allison is sitting there tomorrow, wrapped up in the solace of his race car, he said the last thing he will do is pray.

"I'll pray that it will be a safe race for everyone," he said quietly. "I'll pray that we will do the best we can, that we will work hard and do our best. And then I will pray again that everyone will come home safe."

Daytona 500

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Tomorrow, noon

Pole sitter: Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 189.426 mph

Outside front row: Dale Jarrett, Chevrolet Lumina, 189.274 mph

1992 winner: Davey Allison

TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WXCY (103.7 FM)

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G; Preliminaries: Today, NASCAR Busch Series, Goody's 300

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