By MICHAEL KNIGHT
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He is as physically imposing as John Wayne, a man who stands tall and proud and broad-shouldered. Wearing a black hat he could easily be mistaken for any of those bad guys the Duke shot it out with in the Hollywood westerns.
And yet, at this moment, his emotions had gained control over the hulking body.
He sat next to his son and cried.
"My little boy (Brandon, 14) hopped in the car at the start/finish line," Elzie Wylie Baker -- better known as Buddy -- said yesterday afternoon after blazing his way to glory, $102,275, and the 22d Daytona 500 stock car race. "He was cryin' a little, and I was cryin' too. I'll tell you, that's what it's all about."
The tears genuinely sprung from the soul of the 6-5, 215-pound driver from Charlotte, who has endured more frustration in his 18 years at Daytona International Speedway than Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia could possibly feel in Lake Placid. Thirty-five times he had competed on the high banks, in what he admits were "some of the best race cars ever brought here," and 35 times he turned into the garage area instead of victory lane.
In the 500 -- this sport's Super Bowl -- and July's Firecracker 400, Baker has crashed while leading. In the 1973 500 his engine blew while in first place with 10 laps to go. Five years later, it happened four laps from the checkered flag.
He is the ultimate pedal-to-the-metal good Buddy, a man who has been criticized for driving too hard, for breaking his equipment. He has won only 17 of 502 Grand National races -- a 3.4 winning percentage. Pete Rose, who was among the 110,000 spectators yesterday, would never have gotten a megabuck contract with a batting average like that.
Baker's ultimate vindication came in the fact that, when he finally did win at Daytona, he did it his way, as Frank Sinatra would say. He led eight times, 143 of the 200 laps around the 2.5-mile tri-oval, and averaged a stunning 177.602 MPH in his NAPA Oldsmobile. It was the fastest 500-mile race in history, bettering the record of 174.700 MPH set by Lennie Pond 1 1/2 years ago at Talladega, Ala.
Ironically, Pond did it in the same car Baker drove yesterday. There has never been any question that the Harry Ranier team, with crew chief Waddell Wilson, possessed what is probably the quickest machine on NASCAR's Winston Cup tour. The problem has been finishing.
"I don't know any time I've driven a better car," said Baker, who became only the fourth man to win from the pole position. "The crew deserves all the credit. All I had to do was keep it between the two walls, it was such a great race car."
But as good as Baker's car was, a crucial decision by Wilson ultimately could have made the difference between victory and defeat for Baker. Buddy has passed Dale Earnhardt for the lead on lap 155 and held it when the time came for his final pit stop.
Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett, who were running third and fourth, pitted on lap 180. Allison's crew added fuel and slapped two tires on the outside of his Hodgdon Mercury in 11 seconds. The normally efficient Wood Brothers team took 13 seconds just to add one can -- 11 gallons -- of gasoline to Bonnett's Purolator Mercury.
"Right before Buddy came in, the Wood Brothers put in one can and I was already thinkin' about it," Wilson explained. "If we put in two, it would have taken an extra three seconds, so we gambled on one because I thought it was the only way we'd win."
So when Baker stormed into the pits one lap after Allison and Bonnett, his mechanics sloshed in 11 gallons in seven seconds. Earnhardt, still running second, came in at the same time but sat there for over 25 seconds and had to stop again the next lap because the new left-rear tire went soft.
Baker returned to the track with an 8.7 second advantage over Allison and quickly stretched it to 13 seconds as Allison and Bonnett battled for second place.
Wilson, worried that there wasn't enough fuel on board to finsh, radioed to Baker to ease his large right foot off the throttle.
"He told me to slow down and I said, 'I can't hear you,' just to get him off my back," laughed Baker. "I was afraid somebody would pass me if I slowed down.
"Dave Marcis (who had spun in turn four with Cale Yarborough on lap 107) was runnin' behind me and I motioned him to move up, 'cause two cars runnin' together get better fuel mileage.
"With two laps to go the fuel pressure gauge fell to two pounds and I said, 'Oh, no, I know what's going to happen.'"
But, for once, it didn't. Just then, John Utsman's Chevrolet blew its engine on the front straightaway, and Baker slowed -- conserving those precious last few drops -- as the race ended under the yellow caution flag.
Baker, 39, admitted thoughts of past disasters flashed through his mind in those closing laps. Thoughts of 1971, when Richard Petty passed him 50 miles from the finish to win. Thoughts of 1975, when his engine exploded with less than 150 miles to go. Thoughts of '73 and '78.
"If I had run out of fuel, I'd have probably shot myself," he said.
Then he thought about his Oldsmobile and the remarkable record speed and the big man straightened up his shoulders and conceded, "I'd have had to put a lot of effort into losing today."
Buddy Baker had -- finally -- indeed done it.