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