Race Tales: Celebrating Ten Years of NASCAR Memories (2001)

Here, in its unedited entirety, is "Race Tales," a story I wrote in late 2001. On this page, you will find out more about my NASCAR fandom than you ever would care to know; it surprises me in hindsight! I have yet to revise it at all since then, but while I might update it later on, I felt the need to post it in the meantime. All 23 segments are included and presented to be read from top-to-bottom, including ten race reviews and the original side-notes written to aid its flow.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Author's Introduction

The year 2001 marks my tenth year as a fan of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, dating back to the first time I watched a race on television in 1991. Just like any other sports fan, I can recall some definitive moments in the sport that reinforce my support. For some Winston Cup fans, these moments are when their favorite drivers win a hard-fought race while others best remember stunning finishes to intensely competitive races. For me, the races that I remember best are those that keep me interested as they happen and leave me in awe after the checkered flag drops. I believe that the best races are also ones where even the best drivers have to race for the victory all the way to the end, be it offensively or defensively. I have never been a fan of races with "dominant performances," nor the drivers who frequently do; I watch Winston Cup races in hopes of watching intense but safe competition from beginning to end. Consequently, all of my favorite drivers have rarely won.

I must also explain that this list includes races that I first remember watching as they happened, not on replays or tape delays after the race was completed. I believe that this discrepancy is important as my state of mind at the time they happened has influenced how I remember these races. Basically, I remember all ten of these events best because they have both greatly affected my opinion of the sport and gave me many reasons for supporting it all these years.

Here is a list of the ten Winston Cup races I remember best since 1991, listed chronologically with my recollection of each race as I saw them. These descriptions become more and more detailed as the events become more recent simply because as my interest in the sport has matured, so too has my ability to remember details. In between, I have included a handful of memories separated into short stories to tie the race histories together. These tales are unique from any of the ten races, so I have treated them separately. Through describing these various memories as well as races and the intricate ways they are linked together, I hope to retrace how both the sport and my perception of it has changed over the years. Also, for those who may not understand this sport, I hope these tales will show what fans like myself have been talking about!

--Brock Beard
August 27, 2001

Race 1: DieHard 500 at Talladega - July 28, 1991

It all began on a day in late July, 1991. Until I purchased a copy of this race on tape just this year, I only remembered one moment. It wasn’t Sterling Marlin’s first pole position, nor Ernie Irvan’s prerace apology for his rough driving earlier in the season, nor even the intense battle for the lead that Dale Earnhardt eventually won on the immense Alabama oval, but was instead a spectacular crash with about twenty laps to go. At that moment, Rick Mast’s Oldsmobile was passing a slower car in the final turn when the two made contact and Mast’s car slid sideways. Suddenly, the right side of his car lifted up in the air and landed on its roof, sliding backwards into the outside wall before grinding to a halt just after the starting line. Thankfully, Mast walked away and my interest in the sport began.

Shortly thereafter, I went to a car show with my Dad and one of his friends, where he bought me a Matchbox-sized diecast car made by a new toy company called Racing Champions. Although it was Terry Labonte’s car from 1990, it was otherwise completely identical to Rick Mast’s car that flipped in the Talladega event, beginning a collection that has continued to expand to this day. When I was younger, I used to race these cars around the upstairs of my house, calling the impromptu road course "Room Rush Speedway" as it involved pushing the cars in a race in and out of several of the upstairs rooms.

I lost my Terry Labonte car sometime after, not remembering where I left it and later forgot about it altogether. Then, just a couple of years ago as I was doing yard work with my parents, I found the car buried sideways near the surface of a dirt embankment on top of our backyard retaining wall. After clearing away the caked mud that was on the car, I noticed that the only damage sustained to it over the years was that the paint on the side buried deepest had worn off. Even the driver’s name was still legible on the roof! We are still guessing to this day how it ended up in the embankment in the first place!

Days of Thunder

In late 1991, most likely after the DieHard 500, I went with my Mom and my younger brother Miles to see "Days of Thunder" at the Campanil Theater, a venerable cinema in my hometown of Antioch, California. Although the movie was released the year before, the Campanil’s tight budget prevented them from showing films released more recently. At any rate, Miles and I were both awestruck with the movie, featuring Tom Cruise as a devil-may-care driver entering the competitive Winston Cup Series, struggling to succeed against all odds. The intense racing scenes made a huge impression on me, making me hope the Winston Cup races on television would be just as exciting. Along the way, the movie also featured such actual drivers as Rusty Wallace, Harry Gant and Neil Bonnett, further expanding the list of drivers I would come to recognize while watching Winston Cup racing.

Race 2: Save Mart Supermarkets 300 at Sears Point - June 7, 1992

Less than a year after I saw my first race was the first Winston Cup race I had actually witnessed at the track, the Save Mart Supermarkets 300. By this point, my brother Miles had gained an interest and we both had developed preferences for certain drivers. My choice was Derrike Cope, who attracted my attention with his bright orange Purolator Chevrolet. To this day, I am still partial to creative paint schemes some drivers have on their cars. My brother preferred Terry Labonte and his dark blue Sunoco Oldsmobile, which may have had something to do with his name being the same as our Dad’s. We were all excited as this race was the first race our family watched at the Sonoma, California track, a sprawling 2.5 mile road course that was only a little over an hour’s drive from Antioch. As we headed to our seats on race day, located within view of both pit road and the flagstand, both my brother and I received autographs on our baseball caps from Derrike Cope and Terry Labonte when they signed our hats over the fence in the paddock, the first autographs we had ever received.

We were also excited to witness one of Richard Petty’s last Winston Cup races; "The King’s" retirement after more than thirty years in racing, called the "1992 Fan Appreciation Tour," was almost impossible to avoid in the news throughout the season. During driver introductions, I booed rising superstar driver Davey Allison as I was frustrated that previous race coverages usually revolved around him. Although I was relieved to see Allison damage his car in the Esses early in the race, his remarkable decision to race at the July Talladega race while recovering from injuries received at Pocono just the week before made me admire him. But that’s a different story.

At the time, I did not know that second place starter Ernie Irvan had jumped the start when the race began, causing his Kodak-sponsored Chevrolet to be penalized and restart in the last position. I did, however, learn this when Irvan unexpectedly came charging back to the front. As the laps wound down, Dad told me about the penalty Irvan had sustained as, by now, the Kodak car was right on the rear bumper of the leader, Terry Labonte. Then, as I looked to the final hairpin turn before the flagstand, Irvan dove to the inside of Labonte and flew into the lead! The crowd cheered as Irvan made the pass; increasing even more when he took the checkered flag moments later.

Race 3: Hooters 500 at Atlanta - November 15, 1992

Just like the first race I ever saw, only one image has stood out in my mind from this event at Atlanta’s 1.5 mile oval, the final race of the 1992 season and of Richard Petty’s final season. The image, in this case, was a crash at the one-third mark when Petty’s blue and red STP Pontiac slammed into a group of wrecking cars in turn one. As I watched on our upstairs television, the camera peered through the smoke, a small flame appeared as the crumpled front end of Petty’s still-moving car had caught fire, a fire that was eventually extinguished when he drove up to a fire engine stationed near the infield. Thankfully, Petty walked away, waving to the crowd. I was hoping that Richard Petty’s last race would result in a good finish, but it was not to be.
Soon after I finished watching this unfold, I went on a walk with my parents, returning after the race was completed. The next day, in my third-grade class, I was interested to hear about Richard Petty’s last race from a classmate of mine who brought in an article about it for our current events segment. We both knew that the end of Richard Petty’s career was truly history in the making.

A Year of Uncertainty

I do not remember much of anything from the 1993 Winston Cup season. The unfortunate passing of Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki in a private plane crash on April 1 of that year coupled with that of Davey Allison just over three months later in a helicopter crash overshadowed any of the events on the track. The news of both of their deaths was very sad for all of the fans of the sport, myself included, even though many had never met either of the drivers. For this and other reasons, we decided not to go to Sears Point that year. From this, I found out for the first time how closely fans connect to the experiences of the athletes in their sport, be they triumphs or tragedies. Even so, the memories that I have of both the drivers and the stories I have heard of them over the years has allowed them to live on in my memory. There was Allison, with his dominating on-track performances and ability to drive while injured. Then I remember Kulwicki, calm and collected, wearing a Mighty Mouse patch on his uniform while driving car number seven. I certainly hope future fans will remember Kulwicki and Allison’s contributions when they look back at NASCAR’s illustrious past.

After the tragic deaths of Kulwicki and Allison, I do, however, remember at the time what became of their teams. In one of the first races without Kulwicki, I remember how odd it was that when driver Jimmy Hensley came on board, the sponsor changed from Hooters Restaurants to The Family Channel. I also remember that Robby Gordon became the first driver to take over for Davey Allison in the twenty-eight car at Talladega, but during the early stages of the race, Gordon wrecked his car the start / finish line. Gordon was able to walk away from the wreck.

Silly Season

Although 1994 started off on a tragic note with the deaths of drivers Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr while practicing for the Daytona 500, my interest in the sport began to recover. By the time our family went to Sears Point for the second time in 1994, Miles and I had witnessed the after-effects of what is called "Silly Season," where drivers, teams, and sponsors shift their loyalties for varying reasons. Derrike Cope had lost his ride in his Purolator car number ten, moving to the black car number ninety-eight. In Cope’s place was Ricky Rudd, a mild-mannered Virginian who bought Cope’s team and brought on Tide as a sponsor. At the time, I assumed Cope had simply been replaced by Rudd, so my allegiance stayed with the "Tide Ride" and its new driver.

Miles’ attention shifted from Terry Labonte to Sterling Marlin, fresh off his first career win in the Daytona 500 as part of his first full year driving the familiar Kodak car Ernie Irvan used in his Sears Point win two years prior. Irvan became the first full-time driver in the twenty-eight car since Davey Allison’s death, allowing Marlin to step into the Kodak car’s empty seat. The race at Sears Point was interesting once we were able to pick out our drivers in the field. Derrike Cope got in a tremendous crash with John Krebs, causing his car to end up in an embankment. As Cope walked behind our seats at the top of the grandstands, I instantly noticed him and called out his name. Cope, his back facing us and frustrated at his misfortune, only returned a one-finger salute. I did not blame him, though: he hadn’t won since 1990. Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin stayed near the front, but were unable to grab the lead away from the dominant car of Ernie Irvan, who went on to win the event for the second time.

I took pictures of the racing action at Sears Point for the first time in 1994, finding pictures of Rudd and Marlin as well as the green Chevrolet of Harry Gant. The reason for my interest in Gant was, like Richard Petty, Gant was in the midst of his "Farewell Tour," his final season on the circuit. Although I did not know it at the time, Gant was a fan favorite among the crowd, having become the oldest driver to win a race at the age of 52 in 1992 and is still one of only a few drivers to ever win four straight races.

Race 4: Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis - August 6, 1994

Threatening to overshadow Gant’s retirement, however, was the upcoming Brickyard 400, the first stock car event at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was particularly interested in how this race would play out, yet was confused as to why this daytime event would be run on a Saturday rather than Sunday.

On that particular day, I went with the family to our weekly piano lessons in San Leandro before going to a mall in nearby Blackhawk. As we strolled through the mall, Miles and I noticed that a boot store was showing the race on a large television screen in the shop. The race, by then, had progressed into its later stages, so the two of us decided to watch the event as our parents continued to shop. I remember vividly how intense the race was at that time. Ernie Irvan was holding fast on the outside of newcomer Jeff Gordon’s rainbow colored DuPont Chevrolet, which was hugging the stripe along the track’s lengthy access roads.

The two battled in this position for quite some time before Irvan’s car suddenly slowed and ducked onto pit road with only a handful of laps to go, an unfortunate victim of a flat tire. I was, as unbelievable as it seems today, excited to see Jeff Gordon go on and win the event. I did not witness Gordon’s first victory a few months earlier, but was interested in finding out what all the hype was about behind that kid. Soon after the race, a Chevrolet commercial was even shown congratulating Chevy’s win in the inaugural event, making me wonder if they had such ads prepared for the Fords or Pontiacs beforehand.

Although Gordon has since gone on to win several more races, this event remains to this day the only one that I enjoyed. I’ll explain this later.

Race 5: Save Mart 300 at Sears Point - May 7, 1995

In 1995, Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Craven from Maine became my second favorite driver. I enjoyed, just as I do now, hearing about emerging drivers in the sport and wished Craven the best in his inaugural season. Miles had also begun supporting another driver just the year before.

That driver’s name was Dale Earnhardt.

Miles admired Earnhardt’s aggressive driving skills and ubiquitous presence in victory lane. Earnhardt had always maintained these trends as it was obvious to all in those years that he was the man to beat on race day in his black Chevrolet. However, on the day of the 1995 Save Mart 300, the third our family had gone to, I remember reading an article in the paper saying that Earnhardt was "incapable of turning left and right" which struck me as odd considering how experienced he was. I was truly excited on race day when I noticed that Ricky Rudd would start on the pole for this event, believing he would finish there. I had still not witnessed any of Rudd’s wins, and while this looked like it was going to be the first, it turned out to become an even more important first.

Like the same event in 1992, I best remember the winning pass. Mark Martin was still leading the race, having been out front for quite some time. Then, Miles and I noticed that Earnhardt, running second, was closing the interval very quickly with only about ten laps to go. The crowd cheered Earnhardt on every time he drove by us on the frontstretch, closely monitoring the large video screen to see what progress he was making on other parts of the track. Then, with only a few laps to go, when the leaders were in the sweeping "carousel turn" at the far end of the track, we saw on the screen Martin’s car slip up the track a little as Earnhardt closed in, dove down to the inside, and took the lead at the exit of the corner. At that moment, the crowd literally exploded into cheers!

When Earnhardt entered the hairpin to lead that lap, which was actually the next-to-last, the crowd was still in a frenzy, waving and applauding the black number three, gradually increasing in intensity as Earnhardt continued to pull away from Martin. When Earnhardt came around that final time, he skidded a little bit in the last turn and still crossed the stripe a healthy margin over second-place Martin. It was, by far, the most excited I have ever seen the crowd at Sears Point. Everyone around us, even fans of other drivers such as myself, were standing and applauding long after that final lap!

Race 6: Goody's 500 at Bristol - August 26, 1995

On this early Saturday night in August, my brother and I were home alone as our parents went out to dinner. We were very excited from this and decided to watch that night’s race at the steeply-banked short track in Bristol, Tennessee on our parent’s large television in the downstairs family room. While watching the ESPN’s prerace show as rain delayed the start of the main event they would soon cover, I distinctly remember ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch saying from victory lane that "at the end of the race, the winner will bring his beaten, battered race car here." I then thought: "How badly beaten?" It wouldn’t take long to find out!
Miles and I watched the race progress as the field dwindled down in a mass of caution flags from the carnage typical of the Winston Cup action on short tracks. Towards the end, it looked like Terry Labonte was up for an easy victory in his Kellogg’s Chevrolet as he was staying well ahead of the pack, but just like at Sears Point a little over three months prior, Dale Earnhardt was in second and coming on strong. This was soon noticed by the ESPN reporters, who put up a graphic on the screen that showed Earnhardt reduce his interval behind the leader over several laps. With two laps to go, the two were only a few car lengths apart with Labonte entering heavy traffic. As the white flag flew, signaling the final lap, I thought Earnhardt had him right where he wanted him. Earnhardt found a great run beneath Labonte when the Kellogg’s car was stuck behind a lapped car, giving Earnhardt a clear shot at the inside. Just then, as Earnhardt tried to pass Labonte on the apron near the frontstretch, he tapped the leader’s left rear. Labonte’s car wiggled, bounced off a car on the inside, then ran head-on into the outside wall just ahead of Earnhardt, crossing the finish line in the process to clinch the victory.

As the victorious crew pushed the twisted Kellogg’s machine into victory lane and a grinning Labonte talked with reporters, Miles and I were left in awe of how wild the finish and how prophetic Dr. Punch’s prerace narrative were. It was the best finish I had ever seen up to that point, which I soon conveyed to my parents when they called from the restaurant just after the coverage ended.

My NASCAR Renaissance

For reasons even I cannot explain, I do not remember many moments from the races in 1996 and 1997. While this time period included Ricky Rudd’s landmark win in the 1997 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (which I saw highlights of on the news while on vacation in Los Angeles) and we went to Sears Point Raceway’s Winston Cup race both years, something seemed to be missing.

I started to become interested in NASCAR again during our sixth trip to Sears Point in 1998. Not only had the track been reconfigured and the cars become more modern, but "Silly Season" was again in full effect. Sterling Marlin and Ricky Craven had both since switched teams with Marlin in a Coors Light sponsored Chevrolet going through a winless drought since 1996 and Craven as Jeff Gordon’s second teammate, still recovering from a accident in 1997 and being replaced by Wally Dallenbach in the Budweiser Chevrolet. Both Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd had remained on the same teams they were on three years earlier, but were facing the frustration of finishing behind Jeff Gordon more and more as the young upstart was now poised for a third championship. Despite Gordon’s dominance throughout the year, he was no match for a determined Dale Earnhardt during the 1998 Daytona 500 as the ubiquitous driver and his black Chevrolet finally made it to victory lane after twenty consecutive attempts. I was pleased that Miles’ second driver was still successful, but was frustrated that Craven was missing in action. Then, during qualifying, I noticed a rookie driver named Jerry Nadeau begin his timed lap.

Like Craven, the young Nadeau was from the northeast, hailing from Danbury, Connecticut. At the time, Nadeau was driving Ford number thirteen, a car number that I thought none of the drivers, many of them superstitious, would ever want. As Miles and I sat with our Dad in the grandstands bordering the recently added track segment called "The Chute," we saw Nadeau’s gray and white car fly by en route to a second place qualifying effort, one that surprised everyone: he would start right alongside polesitter Jeff Gordon!

I had found my new second driver.

Two days later, on June 28, I was very excited for Nadeau as he looked to be ready to give Gordon a run for his money in the Save Mart / Kragen 350. When the green flag waved and the race began, Nadeau had the inside line in the first corner and passed Gordon, leading the field up the first uphill portion of the track. Just as I was ready to start cheering, Nadeau cut the second right-hand turn on the top of the hill short, driving through the rough grass on the inside and losing several positions when he again proceeded along the track. Only a few laps later, Nadeau’s car broke a track bar in the Esses, sending his car hard into an embankment, causing him to finish last. The dismay on his face was evident from the in-car camera posted in his car as Nadeau climbed out of the car. From then on, I was hooked all over again on Winston Cup racing as I anticipated that Ricky Rudd and Jerry Nadeau would soon visit victory lane. The fact that Jeff Gordon won that day at Sears Point only strengthened my resolve. As I said earlier, I am not a fan of dominant performances such as that Gordon did that day. This time period, which extends to this day, is what I call my NASCAR Renaissance.

Race 7: NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville - September 27, 1998

In late 1998, our family had a great two-week vacation to England and Ireland to get away from it all as both Miles and I had September breaks from school. Yet, at journey’s end, I was glad to be home again, viewing anything American with the enthusiasm of an immigrant at Ellis Island.

One of these, of course, was Winston Cup racing, so Miles and I watched in our upstairs television room the first race that was on when we returned: the NAPA AutoCare 500 at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped oval in Martinsville, Virginia. Although we did not see the beginning of the event, it was turning into a great race for our drivers Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd.
In the scorching Virginia sun, Marlin was keeping his Chevrolet firmly in front as Rudd stayed in his sights, struggling with a scalding hot car caused by a failed air conditioning system. This problem probably would not have been so bad on other days, yet on this day the air temperature at the track was above ninety degrees, even higher inside all forty-three cars. Each of the many caution periods did nothing to appease the intense heat Rudd and the others were experiencing. Just when it looked like Marlin was going to win the event, leading more laps than any other driver, something in his car broke, abruptly ending his day as he headed to the pits.

Now it was Rudd’s turn to shine.

Rudd took full advantage of his remaining pit stops, taking on ice and drinking water while shunning offers to have a replacement driver run the rest of the race for him. Despite persistent challenges from championship point leaders Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Rudd somehow managed to hold them off to take the well-deserved victory. When Rudd came out of the car in victory lane, he immediately collapsed from exhaustion, receiving oxygen and ice at the site from infield doctors as well as from ESPN’s trackside reporter and part-time doctor Dr. Jerry Punch. Rudd said a few words from the ground before regaining his footing, trophy in hand. It was both an exciting and inspirational win for me as it was also the first time I saw one of my favorite driver’s victories unfold.

In an equally happy footnote, hard-luck driver Rich Bickle was interviewed soon after the celebration in victory lane, having earned his career-best finish. Bickle had been struggling for nearly a decade to gain consistency in the Winston Cup Series, moving from team to team before early 1998, when he replaced an injured Greg Sacks to drive car number ninety-eight. Bickle had gained mediocre results with this team, owned by racing legend Cale Yarborough, when he surprised everyone by qualifying fourth at Martinsville. After he somehow remained in the fourth position when the checkered flag waved, a weary yet delighted Bickle declared to reporters: "This is like winning to me!"

Planning Ahead And Looking Back

At Charlotte’s UAW-GM 500, the very next race after Rudd’s Martinsville victory, Derrike Cope won his first career pole position, finishing well in the race even as veteran Mark Martin scored the victory. I then watched the remaining races of the 1998 Winston Cup season, the best of these being the Coca-Cola 500, an exhibition race in Motegi, Japan where Mike Skinner edged 1998 Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon for the victory. It was then that I prepared for the 1999 season, writing to NASCAR to ask what address I could find Jerry Nadeau’s fan club address. I received back a complete list of all of the 1999 fan club addresses for each driver.

From this, I signed on to Ricky Rudd and Jerry Nadeau’s clubs while Miles sent out applications for those of Dale Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin. To our surprise, we were sent back a fascinating array of materials from each of the clubs within only a matter of weeks.
1999 also marked the first time that I became interested in NASCAR history, having both heard much about it during the series’ fiftieth anniversary the year before and through watching old races on our newly added television channel ESPN Classic. Such races this channel featured included the 1992 Save Mart Supermarkets 300 and Hooters 500, races mentioned on this list.

It was during this year that I was also able to find out through an Internet search that 1991 was when Rick Mast’s Oldsmobile crashed at Talladega; my earliest memory of the sport. It was because of this that 1991 became my favorite Winston Cup season and have since researched that year’s events. My interest in that season even extended to a hobby of mine of updating details of "paintable" cars I downloaded from the Internet for the computer game "NASCAR Racing 2" to accurately reflect the cars and stars of the time, similar to when one paints toy soldiers to represent soldiers in a specific battle. In addition, I decided to try and watch as much of 1999's Winston Cup races as possible, starting with the Daytona 500.

Race 8: Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Bristol - August 28, 1999

The best of 1999's races was, without doubt, the Goody’s Headache Powders 500 at Bristol, the Saturday night event at the small, steeply-banked oval I had come to enjoy since the Earnhardt-Labonte incident in the event four years earlier.

In order to tell about my observations of the race, I cannot help talking about what preceded it. I had recently obtained my driver’s permit that year and drove with my Dad in my war-torn 1988 Toyota Camry that evening to run some errands in order to gain practice. I ended up getting much more than I bargained for. As I was driving through the suburbs roughly three miles away from home, the car slowed when I started to push the gas after stopping at a stop sign. The car continued to slow before it ground to a halt just a few yards from the intersection. Needless to say, it would not restart. After calling AAA and waiting for more than an hour for their truck to arrive, my Dad walked to a nearby gas station to call my Mom at home. A little while later, my Mom picked me up and my Dad waited for the tow truck, which arrived soon after. I arrived at home about a half an hour before my Dad did, having dropped off the derelict Camry. To this day, I do not know what caused my car to break down. Soon after, we watched the race with Miles in the family room; the same room in which Miles and I saw the same event four years prior. This would prove to be only the first coincidence that night would bring.

The first thing we noticed when watching the race was that championship points leader Dale Jarrett’s car was severely damaged as a result of an early crash, very uncharacteristic of the cautious driver. This damage was quickly made worse by a second spin into the inside wall when Jerry Nadeau, substituting for a retiring Ernie Irvan in his Pontiac, ran into the rear of Jarrett’s Ford. I was very frustrated with this incident, not that Jarrett was losing valuable points in his championship battle, but that Nadeau was penalized for aggressive driving. The race wore on, creating the usual amount of havoc that eliminated many from contention due to several accidents, which put two drivers at the front of the pack late in the race: Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt.


Labonte was leading the race by a fair margin over Earnhardt with less than 100 laps to go in the 500 lap event. Quickly, the ESPN announcers reporting the event noticed this coincidence by showing a clip of the wild 1995 finish they had broadcasted back then. The present event did look eerily similar: Earnhardt was still driving the black Goodwrench sponsored number three car while Labonte was still behind the wheel of the yellow Kellogg’s-backed number five. The race seemed to go green for quite some time until eleven laps to go when Terry Labonte’s younger brother, Bobby, blew his Pontiac’s engine in a huge puff of smoke as he slowly drove along the inside of the track. And that’s when things went crazy. Just one lap later, Jeremy Mayfield’s Ford spun and slammed into the inside wall on the backstretch. Right when the caution flag came out, Terry Labonte was tapped by Darrell Waltrip and spun in the fourth turn, giving Earnhardt the lead. The announcers were speechless!

At this point, I immediately wrote Labonte off as a possible winner. There seemed to be several cars on the lead lap and Labonte had to pit in order to replace all four of his blistered tires. Little did I know that there were only eight cars on the lead lap and five of them pitted, including Labonte. Two of the cars that pitted under this caution were Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd, who both hoped new tires would give them a better finish. Labonte’s frustration was evident when he violently spun his tires in a huge puff of smoke while rushing back to the track, beating the other four off pit road. Earnhardt decided not to change his worn tires due to the fact that his twenty-sixth place starting position gave him a pit stall on the backstretch, a notorious disadvantage of qualifying outside the top twenty-five. As the field sorted itself out in single-file, only three cars separated a fuming Labonte from Dale Earnhardt.

On lap 496, the race was on. The next time by, Labonte made no secret of his strategy by flying past Mark Martin for fourth in turn one. Just before that lap was completed, Labonte shot past Jeff Gordon for third. The Kellogg’s car quickly ate up a two car length advantage Tony Stewart had built up in second, passing his Pontiac in turn three with just two circuits to go. It was not until this point that I began to reconsider Labonte’s odds of winning! By the time lap 499 had begun, Labonte was behind Earnhardt by just a matter of feet. In turn three, Labonte cut down low in hopes of making the winning pass, then slid into the black number three as they hauled down the frontstretch for the white flag side-by-side. Labonte edged past Earnhardt into turn one, but then slid up the track slightly, causing Earnhardt to tap the Kellogg’s car in the rear, suddenly sending Labonte into a spin that caused his car to face the charging field in the wrong direction.

Earnhardt eased by on the inside, closely followed by an equally fortunate Jimmy Spencer. Rudd, having worked his way past Stewart for third, chose the outside line when Labonte’s car emerged from the smoke, running head-on into the Kellogg’s car just as Stewart hit Rudd’s rear. Just as both Rudd and Stewart’s damaged cars limped past, Mark Martin slammed into the side of Labonte’s car as it slid backwards into the inside wall just before Sterling Marlin whacked Martin’s rear bumper. The nearby car of Jeff Gordon barely cleared the wrecks on the outside at this point, passing not only Marlin and Martin, but Stewart as well before receiving the checkered flag in fourth. Just moments earlier, Earnhardt took the win, being rear-ended by an out of control Spencer in turn one. Both the crowd at the track and our group at the house were amazed.

I believe that "That was cool!" was my first response to the on-track action. Though a high amount of fans were disgusted with what they called Earnhardt’s "unsportsmanlike conduct," my opinion was that Earnhardt was unable to slow down in time to avoid the collision. Miles and I were pleased to see that the passion for winning Earnhardt harbored, a characteristic Miles particularly enjoyed, was still evident on the track even as equal portions of the Bristol crowd cheered and booed when Earnhardt climbed out of his car in victory lane.

The 2000 Winston Cup Season

Entering the 2000 Winston Cup season, the second season I would follow in its entirety, I found a way to commemorate the major events of the season as they occurred. This method was to create a collage of colored pencil drawings of race winners, on-track skirmishes, and any other news in the sport that occurred in 2000. I planned on adding to the collage after each race, creating a colorful mini-mural. After practicing this through a review of 1999's highlights, I then prepared for the following season.

In 2000, "Silly Season" focused more on team changes than anything else. Ricky Rudd became 1999 Winston Cup Champion Dale Jarrett’s teammate when Rudd was selected to drive the same Texaco Havoline car previously driven by Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan. Jerry Nadeau became the teammate of Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte when a new sponsor for the third car on the team, Michael Holigan Homes, insisted Nadeau drive. Even Sterling Marlin gained a new teammate in the form of Kenny Irwin, Jr., whose potential for a first win was noticed by the team in 1999.

The competition also seemed to intensify in 2000. The amount of different winners in the season was increasing quicker than before, including the first two wins for Dale Earnhardt’s young son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who looked to be giving his Dad a run for his money in only his first season. The elder Earnhardt was also working towards a record-breaking eighth championship, hoping to gain ground on points leader Bobby Labonte as the season continued.
Unfortunately, a rash of three fatal on-track crashes during the season lingered on the minds of fans that year. These tragedies, each occurring separate from one another between May and October, took the lives of newcomer Tony Roper, expected 2001 Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin, Jr., Marlin’s new teammate. Investigators have since looked into advanced safety devices for race cars, one of which being "kill switches" which can prevent the car from hitting a wall hard if the throttle stuck; a scenario they believed to have caused the fatal wrecks.

In the next-to-last race of the season at Homestead, Bobby Labonte clinched his first Winston Cup championship, ending Earnhardt’s valiant bid for his first championship since 1994. Going into the final race of the year, the NAPA 500 in Atlanta, drivers and fans hoped to end on a high note what had been an incredibly turbulent season.

Race 9: NAPA 500 at Atlanta - November 20, 2000

As both my senior year in high school and Miles’ final year in middle school started to prove overwhelming in late 2000, I was relieved to hear that our Dad’s business trip to Maui was fast approaching since it served the added function of a family vacation for Thanksgiving. Before we set out on the two-week trip, I set up a tape to record the last race of the season, the NAPA 500, scheduled to start on Sunday, November 19.

The 2000 season had been incredibly frustrating for nearly all four of the drivers Miles and I supported. Although Dale Earnhardt had fought his way to two thrilling wins and a second place points position going into the event, Rudd, Nadeau, and Marlin had all come excruciatingly close to winning. Sterling Marlin beat dominant road racer Jeff Gordon off pit road at least once during that year’s event at Sears Point, yet eventually had to settle for a runner-up finish to Gordon. Ricky Rudd came closest to winning at Phoenix, the last race to be broadcast by longtime television affiliate TNN, being caught up in a wreck while leading with less than twenty laps to go. Jerry Nadeau was leading when the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte was stopped for rain on the track just past halfway, which would have ended the race had the rain become to heavy. When it let up, Nadeau’s engine blew and rookie driver Matt Kenseth took the victory. Kenseth was one of three drivers who earned their first Winston Cup win in 2000, joining Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Steve Park, who won at the road course in Watkins Glen in just over seventy career starts.

I had read in the newspaper the day before the NAPA 500 that Jeff Gordon had won the pole, yet the real surprise was that teammate Jerry Nadeau had qualified right alongside him in second spot just like that Sears Point race two years earlier. I was very excited to find this out and awaited the start of the race, thankful that our hotel room provided ESPN, which was covering the event as its last Winston Cup broadcast.

When Miles and I awoke the next day in the room, we found that it was raining hard in Atlanta and that the announcers were rescheduling the event for Monday. Although the race would not tape at home, I was glad to be on vacation so that I could watch the race the next day. I accidentally slept in on Monday, November 20, forgetting that the time difference between California and Hawaii resulted in the race starting earlier than usual. Even so, Miles and I began watching the event as our parents went out to breakfast, no doubt talking about the ongoing election controversy to which the race provided a welcome change of pace.

By now, the race was in its later stages, and Nadeau was near the front, even as more dominant drivers such as Tony Stewart were not. The race had been going green for quite some time as evident from a number of green-flag pit stops late in the race. As the race reached twenty-five laps to go in the 325 lap event, Ward Burton had assumed the lead in his Pontiac, putting lapped cars between him and Jerry Nadeau, who was running second several car lengths behind. Considering how close the race was to completion, it looked like Burton was about to take his second victory of the year. Then, thankfully, the caution came out when rookie driver Scott Pruett spun out on the backstretch with just over ten laps to go. I was relieved beyond words that Nadeau had another chance at his first victory!

After a quick round of pit stops, Ward Burton still led with Nadeau and several others behind him. When the green flag flew with seven laps to go, Nadeau kept his Chevrolet right on the rear bumper of Burton’s car as the two surged ahead of the pack. Just then, Nadeau had a great run on the inside of turn one, pulled alongside Burton, and took the lead on the backstretch, much to my extreme excitement as the interval increased, yelling "Go Jerry!" One could easily tell how badly Nadeau wanted this win by how his car drove faster and faster as the laps wore down, still managing to keep his car right along the bottom of the track’s steeply banked turns.
Dale Earnhardt had somehow managed to squeeze past Burton and at least one other car, grabbing second and looking poised to catch the flying Michael Holigan machine. On the last lap, I was so nervous and excited at the same time that I could hardly believe what was happening on the track! On the backstretch on the last lap, reporter Bob Jenkins announced the interval between the lead two cars was about 1.5 seconds as Nadeau continued to hug the inside line, bringing the pressure to a boiling point. After what seemed like hours, Nadeau streaked past the checkered flag, his first victory in his 103rd career start. "ALL RIGHT! ALL RIGHT!" I yelled as I repeatedly thumped my fist on the bed in excitement.

The race was all the more special to me as two eras came to an end when the checkered flag fell. The conclusion of the 2000 Winston Cup season and the NAPA 500 also marked the end of the 2000 Victory Tour, the final season of three-time champion driver Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip finished thirty-fourth in the race, yet was still running on the track at the end. The second was, as mentioned earlier, the end of ESPN’s Winston Cup coverage, which had existed since 1981. I had grown up watching the reports from ESPN’s Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, and the Dr. Jerry Punch for nearly a decade and was truly sad to see it end. I certainly hoped that 2001's Winston Cup reports from FOX and NBC would even come close to being as good as those ESPN provided. Thankfully, Darrell Waltrip had already announced that he would be reporting races for Fox the very next season!

Although the entire trip was very relaxing for both myself and my family, I was increasingly anxious to get back that next week, hoping that Nadeau’s win really occurred due to the race’s unbelievable finish. When I learned that it was indeed official, I celebrated all over again. It is to this day the most excited I have ever been about a race.

An Unfortunate Change

In the preseason, Miles and I found that all of our favorite drivers had remained on their same teams, yet Marlin’s and Nadeau’s were slightly altered. While Nadeau’s only change was a new sponsor, Sterling Marlin had been selected to be one of ten drivers to drive new race-modified Dodge Intrepids as part of the manufacturer’s return to the series in nearly twenty years. Marlin’s car also took on a new silver paint scheme, one that was unlike any other on the track at the time! Another change had occurred in televising these races when aforementioned broadcast stations FOX and NBC gained exclusive rights to the full season.

Little did anyone know that a more unexpected change was not far away.

On February 18, 2001, on the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sped across the finish line in first and second respectively, ending what had been a thrilling race. Moments before, reporters caught glimpse of an accident in the final corner. Soon after, Miles and I found out that Dale Earnhardt and Ken Schrader were involved in the wreck, their cars having made contact during the frantic late-race moments before ramming head-on into the outside wall and sliding to a stop in the infield grass. Only two hours after Michael Waltrip celebrated his very first Winston Cup victory in 463 career starts, doing so along with his brother Darrell via radio still in Daytona’s press box, Miles and I learned from ESPN that while Schrader had survived the accident, Earnhardt had not.

It was truly a tragic event. Even while Sterling Marlin, who had been running alongside Earnhardt at the time of the accident, was blamed by some fans for causing the crash due to contact the two made after Earnhardt lost control, both Miles and I were able to take the situation better than we originally expected.3 We mourned with the rest of the nation, but refused to let it take away from the sport Earnhardt so dearly loved. After a solemn Dale Earnhardt, Jr. only days later declared that any accusations for the accident would not be tolerated, Miles and I decided to still continue to support the sport, something we were sure that Earnhardt would have wanted all Winston Cup fans to do.

With this still lingering on the mind of every Winston Cup fan, my tenth year as one such fan began.

On-Track Miracles

The 2001 Winston Cup season has been a very interesting affair.

Kevin Harvick, a competitive Busch Series driver, replaced the late Dale Earnhardt to drive for the remainder of the season. Harvick’s selection was met with much speculation, yet since team owner Richard Childress owned both Harvick’s Busch team as well as this Winston Cup team, it really was no surprise. Childress at first resolved to never field another black car number three, changing Harvick’s car color to white and the number to twenty-nine. As a newcomer to the series, Harvick would also be running against the five existing candidates for 2001 Rookie of the Year. While the first two races after the Daytona 500 were understandably solemn, Harvick maintained strong finishes in these races by running at the end of both. When Harvick and the other drivers arrived at Atlanta for the Cracker Barrel 500, Harvick’s car colors were changed to white and red since the prior paint scheme was confused by many with that of Brett Bodine. The stage was set as polesitter Dale Jarrett led the field to the start of the race.

Harvick somehow managed to stay up front for much of the race, suddenly taking the lead in a daring three-wide pass on the inside of Dale Jarrett and Jerry Nadeau late in the going. On the last lap, Harvick was still leading, but Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet had assumed the second position and was catching up quickly. Harvick was able to hold him off on the outside of the track until the two approached the final turn with Gordon pulling even with the rookie on the inside. The two remained this way all the way to the finish line, Gordon nearly colliding with the slower car of Brett Bodine as a photo finish ensued. After a few moments of reviewing replays of the final lap, Harvick was declared the winner in only his third start by a mere six thousandths of a second (.006). Never since the series’ infancy had a driver won so early in his career. Upon finding this out, the ecstatic rookie drove slowly on the track in the opposite direction, holding up three fingers out of the driver’s side window to the crowd in memory of the fallen Earnhardt.

Now, everyone was talking about Kevin Harvick! A new star was born and a new era had begun.
Miles and I had begun to enjoy Fox’s coverage of 2001's Winston Cup races. In a touching tribute to Dale Earnhardt, the announcers decided to stay silent on lap three of every race in memory of the driver as the crowd each held up three fingers. To clear the air of Daytona’s aftermath the day before that eventful Atlanta race, I organized that Miles and I each select a "gambling driver." The "gambling driver" method was for both of us to select a driver who had never won a race and see which of them would win first this season. My selection was Robert Pressley, who had been racing full-time since 1995 and had just started to finish better last season. Miles picked out Mike Skinner, a local of Susanville, California who led the final stages of two races in 2000, but lost to Dale Earnhardt in both of them. I’ll tell you more about Pressley and Skinner later on.

There were many remarkable moments such as Harvick’s win throughout the first half of the 2001 season. Mild-mannered Virginian driver Elliott Sadler, in only his third full year on the circuit, won his first Winston Cup race at Bristol in March, having started all the way back in thirty-eighth position in a field of forty-three. At Sears Point in June, our family participated in holding up three fingers with the rest of the crowd on lap three, witnessing hard-luck driver Robby Gordon lead many laps in the race only to lose the lead at the end to eventual winner Tony Stewart. In July, my "gambling driver," Robert Pressley, finished a career-best second place to Kevin Harvick in the inaugural race at the new Chicagoland Speedway in Illinois. Normally quiet driver Sterling Marlin began to show his aggressive side, slamming into the rear of Tony Stewart’s Pontiac late in the Chicagoland race, causing Stewart to spin into the infield. Luckily, injuries were sustained only to Stewart’s car. During the same race, Miles’ "gambling driver," Mike Skinner, was injured after a hard crash early in the event. Skinner was, thankfully, able to walk away, but eventually decided to sit out the rest of the season.
Perhaps the best moment of this period since Harvick’s win at Atlanta was when the Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death. It was on this warm July night that all eyes were on Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the overwhelming favorite to win the season’s fastest evening race. Although four Dodge drivers held the first four qualifying positions with Sterling Marlin on the pole, Earnhardt, Jr. was quick to get his car up front and stay there, much to the approval of the crowd. When the race restarted after a late caution with only six laps to go, Earnhardt, Jr. found himself mired back in sixth position behind a group of cars who only took two tires to his four in hopes of winning the event. All looked lost until Earnhardt, Jr. flew through the pack once again when the race restarted, putting his Chevrolet out front with only four laps to go.

By that time, his familiar teammate, Michael Waltrip, looking to win his second straight Daytona event, stayed right behind Earnhardt, Jr., causing the two to draft away from much of the pack. As the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt, Jr. and Waltrip finished the race one-two, with Elliott Sadler finishing a close third after starting in his lucky thirty-eighth place spot. As the entire crowd stood up and cheered the youthful winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun his car on the infield grass, coming to a stop as Waltrip stopped his car alongside. Then, as the crews from both teams approached the scene, the two drivers climbed on top of Waltrip’s car, hugging one another in a combined celebration.

Earnhardt, Jr. had done it; conquering the legendary track in memory of his equally legendary father.

Rudd and Marlin (Finally!) Get It Right

As the season progressed, Ricky Rudd came agonizingly close to winning his first race since the NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville in 1998 on two occasions. The first one occurred at Martinsville in April when Rudd was passed by his teammate Dale Jarrett for the lead with less than five laps to go, giving Jarrett the win. Then, at Michigan’s fast speedway in June, Rudd made a daring pass on the inside of Jeff Gordon for the lead with two laps to go, only to lose it again when Gordon fought back on the outside in the next turn. Then came the Pocono 500, held the very next week.

Even though Jeff Gordon had dominated and won the two previous races, Rudd was determined to make himself known as a strong contender for the Pocono 500 win. Rudd shocked everyone in qualifying, winning the pole by more than a mile per hour over second-place Sterling Marlin while turning in the fastest overall speed during the final practice session. As the Pocono 500 was on Father’s Day, Dad decided to watch the race with Miles and I. Even as Gordon dominated much of the race at Pocono, Pennsylvania’s triangular speedway, Ricky Rudd made a daring pass of both Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett for the lead late in the race as the two struggled to pass the lapped car of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Soon after, Rudd was able to hold on to the point for his first career win at Pocono, turning in his most impressive performance: he had never won from the pole in any of his previous twenty victories. The win was fantastic as it was also the first win for Rudd’s crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain as well as the first victory for the team since 1997. Even so, Dad, an avid Jeff Gordon fan, was somewhat disappointed by the results.

Like Rudd, Sterling Marlin was having a great season, but was unable to win for much of the season. Marlin’s new Dodge turned in the best finishes of any of the other Dodge teams, finishing third twice in the first half of the season while being a threat to win nearly all of the first sixteen races. Even so, no Dodges won a single race in the first half of the season. Entering the Pepsi 400 at Michigan in August, many anticipated that Dodge would finally bring in their first win, even though rain was expected on the horizon. After finishing a disappointing second to Jeff Gordon in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis two weeks earlier due to a late-race pass, Marlin was determined to bring home a victory.

Sterling Marlin stayed competitive during the early stages of the Pepsi 400, but rain on the track stopped the race on lap 100 of the 200 lap event. Under Winston Cup rules, the driver leading when rain stops a race at halfway can be declared the winner if there is not enough time for the track to be dried and the rest of the race to be run. However, since the rain came early, the track was able to be cleared and the race restarted, much to the disappointment of then leader Mark Martin. Marlin had a new lease on life, passing several cars after pit stops to be with the leaders with less than seventy-five laps to go. Then, as menacing clouds again approached the speedway, Marlin drove flat-out past fellow Dodge driver Bill Elliott for the lead and was still out front when the rain came and stopped the race only a handful of laps later.5 By now, the rain was there to stay and the checkered flag waved for Marlin as the field slowly crossed the finish line under caution.

Since Michigan’s victory lane was outside, Marlin’s car drove into one of the track’s garages for victory celebrations, the press and his crew waiting inside. Ironically, Marlin’s most recent win came in 1996 at Daytona’s Pepsi 400, which was also rain-shortened. As many had suspected that a Dodge would win the Michigan race, representatives from Daimler-Chrysler were present at the track to participate in congratulating Marlin’s landmark win. It was truly great to find that both of our drivers had each won a race this season; not only the fact that our drivers had not won in quite some time, but winning drivers from each Winston Cup season are eligible to race in the following running of The Winston, an exciting all-star race run in May with a huge cash reward for the winner. 2002 will be the first time Marlin and Rudd have raced together in this event in five years.

"Picks of the Week"

Ever since July’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona, NBC has been broadcasting races as part of an agreement they reached with Fox in the off-season. While NBC’s reporters have done a decent job, maintaining Fox’s silent lap three of each race, they did not maintain Fox’s tradition of the announcers predicting each race’s winner before the start. To fill this void, Miles and I decided to begin this tradition anew with the Southern 500, the Labor Day classic run at Darlington’s egg-shaped oval. Though Miles and I are still very partial to our own favorite drivers, we now predict which driver will win each race based upon past races at the same track, calling it our "Picks of the Week." For the Southern 500, I told Miles the Thursday before the event that I predicted that the winless Johnny Benson would win the event as he had a strong run the year before. The same day, Miles told me that he believed that Dodge driver Ward Burton would win the race, considering that Burton had won the 400 mile Darlington race the year before.

Unlike Fox’s picks, we decided to complicate things by making our selections before qualifying. After viewing the Southern 500's qualifying results, it looked like I had the advantage. While Johnny Benson had qualified in the top twenty-five, Ward Burton had only managed to qualify thirty-seventh in the field of forty-three cars after hitting the wall during his timed lap. We both started to think that Burton’s chances for victory were sunk as the race began that Sunday. The event proved very interesting, featuring many spectacular passes for the lead as well as an unusual amount of accidents on the track, causing many of the 367 laps to be run behind the pace car. As Benson remained in the top ten through much of the race, my "gambling driver" Robert Pressley slammed hard into the inside wall, causing his car to lift up and skid on the driver’s side wheels before coming to a stop. Though dazed upon exiting his car, Pressley was okay.

Somehow, Ward Burton had clawed his way through the field up to the leaders, taking the lead on lap 309. At one point, Jeff Gordon, a frequent visitor to Darlington’s victory lane, made a strong challenge on the inside of Burton in the middle of a turn, gaining a slight advantage on Burton’s yellow and black Dodge. Then, remarkably, Burton gained an extra push and drove past Gordon on the outside for the lead. Yet another accident brought out the caution on lap 329, dropping Burton to third place after a slow pit stop. Burton then moved up into the second position when a wreck brought out the caution twenty-two laps later. Then, when the race restarted, Burton again took the lead with eight laps to go as a three-car accident slowed the field once again. To prevent the race from ending under caution as the wreck was slowly being cleared, the race was temporarily stopped with Burton still up front. The previous two Southern 500 races had been shortened by rain, yet even as a group of dark clouds approached, it looked like this race was going to complete all 367 laps. Would Burton be able to hold on?

When the race restarted for the final time, Burton stayed out front, holding off any further challenges from the rest of the drivers. As Burton lengthened his margin, Dave Blaney’s Dodge made a risky pass on a large group of cars, setting off an accident that severely damaged Ricky Rudd’s car along with several others. Burton raced to the line, holding off second-place Jeff Gordon by a comfortable margin for the win as the final lap was run under caution. Johnny Benson, on the other hand, ended up finishing well behind the lead pack as a result of the final two accidents. Miles and I were speechless!

The next race would be the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 in Richmond, Virginia, both the last short track race and the last night race of the season. Entertained by the experience the previous week, Miles and I again selected our "Picks of the Week" early that week before qualifying for who would win the race. I told Miles it would be best for me to stick with what I know, so I picked Ricky Rudd to win that race as Rudd ran very well in the spring race at Richmond. Miles, on the other hand, decided to go for another driver by selecting Terry Labonte, who nearly won a race at Richmond the previous year.

Race 10: Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond - September 8, 2001

Ever since I first considered what races would be included in this collection while at a friend’s birthday party in August, I had anticipated that the 2001 Daytona 500 would complete this list due to its intense competition. However, I delayed the completion of these tales until the final race of the season so that it would encompass ten full Winston Cup seasons. When I first reached this point in early September, I started writing about the 2001 Daytona 500, but was reluctant to end this collection with Dale Earnhardt’s death. Just one week after starting that segment was the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond whose events, as you can see, influenced me enough to alter this list.

Ricky Rudd had been having a great two years driving the famous Texaco Havoline car, yet three wins in 2001 have just barely slipped his grasp due to late-race shoving matches on the track. Besides his losses to Dale Jarrett at Martinsville in April and to Jeff Gordon at Michigan in June, Rudd was again bumped out of the lead by Jarrett with only four laps to go at New Hampshire’s oval in July, causing him to fall back to third behind Jarrett and Gordon. Rudd is a very patient driver and has won many of his races, including 2001's at Pocono, on the "slow and steady" method: he runs his car the hardest only at the end of the race.

Though this method worked out well when Rudd’s competitors were like him, I was wondering if Rudd could still stay competitive against today’s more aggressive drivers such as Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon. Gordon was still leading the Winston Cup points standings coming into the event at Richmond’s three-quarter mile oval by a whopping 342 points over second-place Ricky Rudd. This margin had steadily been on the increase since June when Gordon had picked up four victories and Rudd suffered two costly finishes of thirty-ninth or worse with his Pocono win fading from memory.

Dad, having heard that his Jeff Gordon was on the pole for the night’s race, came upstairs to watch it with Miles and I. As the race began, Jeff Gordon jumped out to a huge lead from the pole position, leading many laps until a caution came out early on. When Gordon fell to third position after pit stops, giving Rusty Wallace the point, Gordon had Sterling Marlin’s Dodge to contend with as the green flag flew.

Then, only thirty-five laps into the race, Sterling Marlin got a great run on the inside of Gordon going down the track’s short backstretch and looked poised to gain the position. Then, it happened. As Gordon fought back on the outside, giving him a slight advantage, Marlin’s Dodge slipped up and clipped Gordon’s left-rear. Gordon’s back end suddenly swung around until it faced the outside wall, the car slamming into the outside barrier with its left side as Rudd drove past the scene in the top ten. "Thank you, Marlin!" Miles and I cheered. Dad, on the other hand, was frustrated, saying that Marlin should have backed off sooner. Gordon then drove his damaged car back to the track’s garage area, the Richmond crowd cheering over the sounds of Gordon’s sheetmetal dragging along pit road.

As barbaric as that may sound, I must make the distinction that Miles and I, like some other fans, do not wish harm upon drivers such as Gordon whose wins we do not enjoy; that would be going too far. Instead, we just hope that their cars are harmed! For example, in the case of Gordon’s Richmond wreck, I was pleased not just that Gordon’s car was out of competition for the win, but also that Gordon himself was able to race another day. Although I may label these drivers as "enemies," I instead treat them as the challenge that I hope my drivers will be able to conquer by finishing ahead of them on the track. It is most likely for this reason that the drivers I support usually win less often than these "enemies," whose function has always been as essential as that of my favorite drivers to me.

Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd still stayed in the top ten through the first half of the race, but a sudden turn of events abruptly ended Marlin’s day. During a round of pit stops just before the halfway point, Sterling Marlin had just had work completed on his car, but was blocked by a car pitting in front of him. Thus, Marlin backed up his car quickly in order to lose as little time as possible, but then it refused to go forward again. As the crew frantically looked under Marlin’s Dodge while the driver continued to struggle with the clutch, the problem was clear. Marlin had broke the transmission. The dejected crew pushed Marlin’s car back to the garage area, attempting to fix it while Gordon’s Chevrolet was still having sheetmetal work done nearby. Understandably, Miles was very frustrated by this turn of events as Marlin had a great run going in the event. Marlin was third in points going into the day’s race, gaining points on Rudd for the runner-up spot. As the points leaders were all having problems, I was reluctant to think of what may happen to Rudd as the laps wound down!

Throughout all of the earlier events, Rusty Wallace dominated the race, leading more than half of the laps. Even so, Ricky Rudd was not far behind, hovering around the top five as the field continued to dwindle. Although I viewed Richmond at the time as an unusually tedious short track race due to its lack of intense competition, this one was unusually spontaneous. As Wallace continued to lead, Rudd tried on many occasions to pass the leader on the inside, yet Wallace’s blue Ford always gained the advantage on the outside. When a caution came out with about thirty laps to go, Wallace led the field onto pit road, changed the air pressure in one of his tires for better handling, and drove back onto the track in the lead with Ricky Rudd, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Dale Jarrett rounding out the top five. As the field restarted with twenty-seven laps to go, the field wondered if they would be able to pass Wallace’s dominant Ford. Still thinking Rudd could pull off the win, I distinctly remember saying to Miles in those last moments of the race: "Right now I’m just hoping Wallace blows a tire." I had no idea what was about to happen.

Just three laps after the final restart as Wallace led the field onto the backstretch by about a car length, Wallace’s car wiggled and slid sideways toward the inside wall. Although Wallace regained control of his car without spinning, he had fallen all the way to fourth position, giving Rudd the lead. Harvick was right behind Rudd at the time Wallace slid, so close that he rear-ended Rudd as they drove past. Although neither lost control, a small piece of metal on Rudd’s rear bumper had been dislodged was now dangling from underneath his bumper. I couldn’t believe it! Rudd was leading the race!

The final moments were even more intense. As Harvick continued to stay directly behind Rudd, at times coming ominously close to his rear end, the announcers were dissecting the replay of Wallace’s slide, saying that Rudd caused Wallace to lose control. Also, they wondered if the piece of debris dangling from Rudd’s car would cause him to be penalized. As word from trackside officials cleared Rudd of the Wallace incident and was not penalized for his car’s debris, Harvick stayed right on Rudd’s rear, following his exact path along the track.

With eighteen laps to go, Harvick attempted to get beneath Rudd’s car on the entrance to the backstretch, but tapped Rudd’s left rear. In an instant, Rudd’s front end abruptly swung towards the inside of the track, headed on a direct course for the inside wall, when the rear end miraculously straightened out, preventing a spin as he kept on his way. Although he lost the lead, Rudd still managed to hold off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for second as they entered turn three. As Harvick began to pull away from the Texaco Havoline car, his first laps led that night, I couldn’t believe that Rudd was able to save that car! At the same time, I was very angry at Harvick as I felt his contact was unprovoked and that Earnhardt, Jr. was now challenging Rudd for second. Then, unexpectedly, Rudd started to pull away from Earnhardt, Jr. There were seventeen laps to go and a margin of a little more than a second to make up. Could Rudd still make it?

Now, a furious Rudd was flying around the track. The announcers measured the speed each car was running as they crossed the starting line, finding that Rudd’s were consistently quicker than Harvick’s. While the "slow and steady" method still held true in Rudd’s driving as he followed Harvick’s path, one could easily tell that Rudd was on a mission! As Rudd closed to within a car length of the leader, Harvick wiggled slightly on the backstretch, but managed to hang on to the lead and keep his half-second margin over Rudd. Even though Rudd briefly lifted off the gas pedal upon seeing Harvick wrestle his car, he was still determined to get that lead.
Then, as the two cars entered turn three to get the signal for five laps to go, Rudd bumped Harvick’s rear bumper, causing the leader to slide up the track slightly into the outer groove. When this happened, Rudd swung underneath the leader, mashing the gas to retake the lead on the inside just as the two crossed the line. Harvick repositioned himself to follow Rudd as best he could, but the damage had been done. Earnhardt, Jr. had suddenly caught up to Harvick and again looked to be ready to take the runner-up spot. As the two raced for position, Rudd pulled away from the pack as Harvick asserted his position.

I could not believe what I had just seen! I thought that the contact Harvick made with Rudd would have damaged his car too much to rally back to the front, but I certainly had underestimated him! Rudd regained his composure, running a "slow and steady" pace as Harvick continued to struggle with Earnhardt, Jr. Soon after the race, I found out that the car Rudd was driving that night was the exact same one he won with at Pocono months earlier. When Rudd crossed the finish line, earning his first win at Richmond since 1984, I cheered just as hard as the crowd did in Richmond! "I have been waiting to see if he could steal one (a win)!" I said as Rudd spun his car in the infield grass in celebration. I had never seen anyone, let alone Rudd, come back from such a setback so late in the race to take the win! It was a thrill like none other!

Rusty Wallace was still able to finish fifth; his car’s wiggling with twenty-four laps to go was found to be a direct result of the air pressure adjustment made during the last pit stop.
As Rudd climbed out of his car in victory lane, waving to the ecstatic crowd, a reporter came up to him to ask how he managed to keep his car from spinning out after Harvick’s shunt.
At first, he feigned arrogance, saying "Well, I’m so doggone good. . .!," but the mild-mannered Rudd then said "To be real honest with you, I don’t know how I saved it. I was looking to see where I was going to hit the fence and it just straightened out. I guess the Good Lord was looking out for us." It truly was a miracle that Rudd was able to win that race, perhaps the greatest one in the history of the sport.

Compounding the excitement of the win was that Rudd was my "Pick of the Week," unexpectedly making both Miles’ record and mine 1-1 headed into the next race at New Hampshire! While Rudd was in victory lane, Miles’ pick, Terry Labonte, crashed hard into the outside wall late in the race, finishing thirty-eighth behind the wall. Labonte was okay. In addition, the Richmond track on which Rudd had won was only a few miles away from his hometown in Chesapeake, Virginia. As a result of Jeff Gordon’s crash and thirty-sixth place finish, Rudd gained an amazing 120 points on Gordon, bringing Rudd to 222 points out of the lead. Sterling Marlin, as a result of his transmission problems, finished thirty-second and fell from third to fifth in the point standings. Both Marlin and Gordon, despite the damage sustained to their cars, managed to finish the race. To top it off, Ricky Rudd would be celebrating his forty-fifth birthday on Wednesday, September 12, three days after Jerry Nadeau’s thirty-first.

It was truly a race to remember.

The Best Laid Plans

After that eventful night in Richmond, Miles and I looked towards Week Three of our "Picks of the Week," the New Hampshire 300 on September 16. On the evening of September 10, I set up a tape to record a replay of Rudd’s victory in the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400, which stopped taping when the replay ended at 3:00 A.M., Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The tape would prove to be a time capsule of an era now dead and buried at Ground Zero.
In the wake of the Taliban’s heartless attacks, NASCAR officials justifiably followed suit with other sports by postponing the New Hampshire 300 to the day after Thanksgiving as no weekends were open in the schedule until then. As a result of the attacks, we canceled our airline tickets for that weekend’s trip to UC Irvine, choosing instead to travel to the campus by car for the beginning of my freshman year.

The following Sunday, the Winston Cup Series proceeded to the next event, held at Dover’s one-mile speedway. To fulfill the desperate need for raising American morale, patriotism, and charity, the show went on with all forty-three cars that day bearing the Stars and Stripes and several drivers donating their winnings to charity. As I sat in the living room in UC Irvine’s Cascada dormitory, I watched the last half of that race, happy to see that Ricky Rudd looked to be on his way towards his first two-race streak. However, in the end, the lapped car of Rusty Wallace spun out Rudd while he was leading in the late stages, causing him to lose the race to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. In a pleasant footnote, Jerry Nadeau somehow managed to finish second after starting forty-first. While the events on the track seemed irrelevant to what the world had just witnessed, I was glad to see that Winston Cup racing chose to condemn the attacks by not bending to the wills of terrorists.

Even though the remainder of the 2001 Winston Cup season served as a pleasant diversion from the events of September 11, this period also featured the demise of Ricky Rudd’s championship hopes. As the season neared completion, Rudd seemed to have the worst luck in races where points leader Jeff Gordon dominated. In November’s Homestead race, Rudd’s competitive pit crew suffered a major setback when Ward Burton’s Dodge bounced off another car while leaving pit road, hitting several members of Rudd’s pit crew working nearby. Luckily, despite the severity of the incident, all of those involved made full recoveries. Rudd was still regarded as the only person who could catch Gordon in the points, but Rudd’s poor finishes coupled with the Homestead incident all but ended the title chase.

The only thing more frustrating than Rudd’s late-season slide was what happened to my other driver, Jerry Nadeau, in Atlanta’s NAPA 500, the next-to-last race of the season. As I watched from my dorm room in Irvine, Nadeau received the one lap to go signal more than four seconds ahead of second-place Bobby Labonte. As Nadeau reached the halfway point of the backstretch with three-quarters of a mile to go, Nadeau’s car swerved as it ran out of gas and limped around the inside of the track. Within sight of the checkered flag, Labonte flew past Nadeau on the outside along with Sterling Marlin and Kevin Harvick, dropping Nadeau to fourth by the time he finally coasted across the line. Adding to my frustration, Jeff Gordon clinched his fourth championship when Ricky Rudd, barely hanging on to his second place position in points, hit the wall near the halfway mark.

Even though none of our "Picks of the Week" have won since September*, there were a few surprising winners during this period. Driver Joe Nemechek had been injured in a crash at Dover early in 2001 and did not return to competition until July, yet unexpectedly dominated in a race at Rockingham, beating second-place Kenny Wallace by several seconds. One week after Sterling Marlin won his second race of the season in Charlotte, Ricky Craven, the same driver whom I followed during his rookie season in 1995, won his first Winston Cup race at Martinsville. 2001 had been Craven’s first full season as a driver since his on-track injury in 1997 and was excited to see his winless streak end. On the final lap of the race, Craven raced side-by-side with runner-up Dale Jarrett, shoving Jarrett up the track in the last corner to secure the victory. Yet another unexpected winner ruffled the feathers of a different championship contender just weeks later.

Under unseasonably warm conditions, the New Hampshire 300 started on schedule on November 23, 2001 with Jeff Gordon dominating much of the event. Gordon looked to be on his way to win his first race as a four-time champion until he encountered heavy traffic with less than twenty laps to go. As this occurred, the Lowe’s Chevrolet piloted by hard-luck driver Robby Gordon closed in on Jeff Gordon’s rear bumper to challenge for the lead.

Robby Gordon, no relation to Jeff Gordon, had been competing part-time on the Winston Cup circuit since 1991 and looked to be finding consistency as a replacement for the injured Mike Skinner by finishing in the top ten for the first time on an oval track at Phoenix. An expert road course driver from the Indy Racing League, Gordon nearly pulled off an upset replacing Mike Wallace at Sears Point’s Winston Cup race in 2001, passing Jeff Gordon for the lead late in the event before Tony Stewart made the winning pass. As Gordon found himself in the same position that day in New Hampshire, he was determined to bring Skinner’s car to victory lane.
With sixteen laps to go, Jeff Gordon suddenly slowed down behind two lapped cars, causing Robby Gordon to ram Jeff Gordon, nearly sending him into the wall with Mike Wallace’s Ford. As the field slowed down for the resulting caution, an angry Jeff Gordon ran into the rear of Robby Gordon’s car, causing the 2001 Winston Cup Champion to be penalized one lap for rough driving. With Jeff Gordon now well back in the field and the race on once again, Robby Gordon pulled off perhaps the most unexpected victory of the season, winning his first race from the position. Ricky Rudd struggled through the race, dropping him to fourth in points behind Tony Stewart and Sterling Marlin. In a postrace interview, Jeff Gordon told reporters he was so disappointed that Robby Gordon did not race him clean that he hoped his late-race shove would cut one of Robby Gordon’s tires. Even so, the win stood and Jeff Gordon was formally crowned the 2001 Winston Cup Champion in a ceremony in New York.

On this controversial note, the 2001 season came to an end. Through the year’s thirty-six races, there had been nineteen different winners, among them five different first-time winners, making it the most competitive season in nearly thirty years.

*I had selected two different drivers as my "Pick of the Week" who both were leading with ten laps to go, but failed to pull off the victory. One of these was Jerry Nadeau in the ill-fated NAPA 500 in Atlanta and the other was rookie Casey Atwood at Homestead, who was leading with five laps to go when he was passed by his teammate, Bill Elliott, for the win. Miles had about an equal amount of success, his best being Kenny Wallace at Rockingham when Wallace won a Busch series event and the pole for the Winston Cup race that same weekend before finishing second in the main event. In the end, our records were both one win, eleven losses with Miles having the best average finishes.


NASCAR Winston Cup racing has brought with it many memories that I have enjoyed over the years. As I have grown and my surroundings have changed since that summer day in 1991, so too has NASCAR as a whole. I have seen the sport evolve from an obscure southern form of entertainment to a mainstream sporting event that has been recognized from coast to coast. While the sport’s outer appearance has changed with the times: new drivers, technological advancements, mainstream sponsors, and even new forms of broadcasting to name a few, much of Winston Cup racing has remained intact.

Now, as then, Winston Cup racing boasts spirited competition among drivers and pit crews race after race. This competition has always been the same as all drivers still dream of a trip to victory lane, even if they had been there before. It is this longevity of the sport, its ability to willingly adjust to the concerns of changing times while not losing sight of its original purpose, that has made Winston Cup racing a sport I have enjoyed week after week.
So, in conclusion, here’s to many more years of race tales: