The Best Laid Plans
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.