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

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.


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