To appreciate how fast stock cars go, consider that the straightaway speed of 220-plus mph is more than 300 feet -- the length of a football field -- per second.

Now, imagine heading into a sharp turn at 100 yards a second in a car that wants to go straight.

"That's what we call oversteer or 'push,' " said Geoff Bodine, who will be on the outside pole in a Chevrolet at the start of Sunday's Daytona 500, the first race of the 1986 NASCAR season.

And "push" is exactly the problem Bodine needs to solve before 12:15 p.m. Sunday, when he and 39 others zoom off the starting line in pursuit of a $200,000 first prize in front of about 120,000 spectators.

Handling, it turns out, is the buzzword among drivers here, who say defending 500 champion Bill Elliott's superb record of 11 NASCAR wins last year was largely a result of superior handling in his Ford Thunderbird.

"We went out and got a Ford last year, just to see what the competition had," said Bobby Allison, who will be in the second row in a Buick Sunday, "and it was a lot more comfortable and secure feeling, especially when you're hung out."

But that was last year. Things may be different now, as Elliott's rivals in Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks take advantage of a new General Motors design aimed at solving handling problems.

Last Sunday, Elliott and Dale Earnhardt squared off in a 50-mile preliminary, and it was Earnhardt who took the checkered flag in his Chevrolet, with Elliott right behind.

"My car wasn't as good," grumbled Elliott today. "I couldn't do nothing with it. I've been working on it, but I can't see how I can get it much better."

What GM did was design a sloping rear window to replace the nearly vertical one that is standard on factory sports coupes.

The sloping window guides air down the trunk toward the "spoiler" on the end of the trunk lid and helps hold the rear wheels on the track, according to Bodine. With the old vertical window, he said, air never got to the spoiler and the rear end tried to break out in turns.

The change has GM drivers smiling, but it still will be "Million Dollar Bill," as Elliott is known, in the favorite's spot for the 28th running of the 500. He won the pole position with a top qualifying time of 205.545 mph, then won his 125-mile qualifiers' race Thursday.

Earnhardt, who won the other 125-mile qualifier as well as the 50-mile Busch Clash against Elliott earlier in the week, is regarded as the top competition. He picked up his third victory of the week in today's 300 Late Model Sportsman race and Sunday will start on the outside of Row 2, next to Allison.

Earnhardt won only four races last year, all on short courses, but said he feels"very good about the car" going into this NASCAR season.

"We worked hard over the winter," said Earnhardt. "We worked in the wind tunnel, and then we were down here testing twice. The car is a little more stable. It's going to be a competitive race."

Ed Miller, one of Earnhardt's engine men, said in the Busch Clash 50-miler, "Dale said he never lifted his foot off the gas the whole way. This track has a beautiful bank, and when the car is handling right it just goes around and around like it was on a string.

"Dale is real tickled with the car," said Miller, "and he doesn't hold anything back. If he says it's running good, it is."

Bodine, who will be alongside Elliott in the front row when the green flag goes down, was less enthusiastic.

He said Elliott has the advantage of having used the same style car for three years. "We're using new sheet metal and we're still trying to work the bugs out," said the Chevy driver from Chemung, N.Y.

"Last year," Bodine said, "we had a loose condition, with the back end coming out in the corners. Now we're in a push condition and the car wants to go straight.

"Earnhardt obviously has it worked out, and Darrell Waltrip ran well in his race," said Bodine. "But we're still struggling with it."

Elliott agreed. "Earnhardt is doing well," he said. "With a redesigned car, they're getting through the corners better. It really looks like I've got my work cut out for me."

He'll have a nice day for it. Weather forecasts call for temperatures in the 70s and sunshine Sunday.

The 500 will mark the end of three weeks of racing at Daytona and Elliott, for one, said he'll be glad when it's over.

"I just want to get out of here," he said. "Three weeks is enough racing for anyone in one place."