It could have been worse.
That's what Bill Elliott kept reminding himself Sunday after the driver's side of his No. 94 Ford slammed into the wall and the car skidded sideways for several hundred feet down the track at Talladega Superspeedway.
Elliott had just led a pair of laps and was running fourth in the DieHard 500 when an innocent bump triggered a 20-car accident in which Elliott's ride was the wildest.
Amazingly, he walked away.
"I never saw it coming," said Elliott, who was diagnosed with a bruised sternum and a few pulled muscles. "One minute we're going through the tri-oval, the next I'm turned sideways going towards the fence. There was nothing I could do but hang on."
And worry. Two years ago, Elliott broke his femur in an accident at Talladega, where high speeds and close racing combine to produce horrific accidents nearly every race.
This time, Elliott benefited from safety equipment installed especially for Talladega. An extra window net to support Elliott's head was added, and extra padding was put on the left side of his seat to provide more cushion in case of driver's side impact.
"I was so relieved to be able to move around and actually walk to the ambulance," said Elliott, who plans to drive in Sunday's race at California Speedway. "I did not want to go through what I did two years ago. That was one tough ordeal.
"When I got home Sunday night and it was hurting to take deep breaths, I kept thinking, "This is a piece of cake compared to two years ago.' "
INDY 500 PLANS: Lyn St. James plans to field a G Force/Infiniti in the 82nd Indianapolis 500 later this month, her first venture as owner-driver in the race. A veteran of six Indy 500s, St. James finished 13th last year in a car entered by Ron Hemelgarn.
DRIVER CHANGE: Morgan Shepherd, who filled in for injured Mike Skinner at Martinsville and Talladega, has been hired to replace Wally Dallenbach in the No. 46 Chevrolet. Car owner Felix Sabates also announced plans to use Trans-Am Series star Tommy Kendall in road-course races at Sears Point and Watkins Glen.
AWARD WINNERS: Rusty Wallace, who leads the Winston Cup points race after the first nine races, is the winner of first-quarter voting for the 1998 Driver of the Year Award. Wallace beat out IRL driver Tony Stewart and NHRA Top Fuel drag racer Cory McClenathan.
Sterling Marlin, whose charity benefit program has raised almost $500,000, is the first-quarter nominee for the NASCAR True Value Man of the Year award.
RIPPING IT UP: Work has begun at Texas Motor Speedway, even though officials are not sure how they plan to reconfigure part of the 1-mile oval. Crews are working to remove asphalt in Turns 1 and 4 and portions of the front straightaway.
Speedway officials expect the project to be completed before the June 5-6 NASCAR Craftsman Trucks-Indy Racing League doubleheader.
IROC RACE: The second round of the International Race of Champions is scheduled for today at California Speedway. The second of four races in the 1998 all-star series will have Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon going for his second straight IROC win.
BIG BUCKS: Television broadcasts devoted to NASCAR's Winston Cup series provided the equivalent of just more than $1.1-billion of comparable exposure value for corporate sponsors in 1997, according to The Sponsors Report, a publication by the media research firm Joyce Julius & Associates. That marked an increase of about 31 percent over the 1996 total.
The exposure value is derived by measuring the time corporate sponsors appear on screen or are mentioned throughout a broadcast against the cost of purchasing an equal amount of commercial time. In 1997, 108 broadcasts were devoted to the 32 Winston Cup events, including live telecasts and cable replays.
BACK ON TRACK: Embattled driver Robby Gordon finished seventh in the rain-postponed CART series event at Nazareth, Pa., on Monday, marking the highest finish for a Toyota-powered Champ car. Gordon, back after a disappointing year in NASCAR's Winston Cup series, is taking over the wheel for the Arciero-Wells team.
"The key is that if I get the right tools to do my job, we can race," said Gordon, who has two career CART wins. "We're not totally there yet on power, but we have the reliability. We can work on our chassis and Toyota can work on getting more power. Getting the reliability on track is really the biggest improvement."
FANCY SHINDIG: Don't forget to catch ESPN's tape-delayed coverage of NASCAR's Night in Hollywood, a shameless self-promotion that mingles celebrities from the worlds of auto racing and entertainment. The gala was Friday, but ESPN's two-hour show is at 7 p.m. today.
_ Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Joanne Korth at Korthsptimes.com