With new rules to improve racing at Talladega, and give the drivers a better driving experience, many uncertainties were brought into this race weekend. However, the rule changes must have benefited the #24 team. Jeff Gordon greatly improved his qualifying effort from the spring race at Talladega, when he started 36th to come back and win the race.
"I'm thrilled with that," Gordon said. "What a turnaround from 36th fastest the last time we were here to a top-10 effort. We're real happy. It's a good, solid run for us. I take my hat off to these guys. They've worked their tails off to get it where it is. We've got a lot on the line with that Winston Million."
HOUR- Gordon Wrecks
After only a few laps into 'Happy Hour', a shock mount on the DuPont Chevy came loose, cutting the left front tire. Luckily, Gordon was in the bottom groove, and felt the tire going down. He had just enough time to get out of the way, pulling down pit lane coming off of turn 4. The cut tire tore up the left front fender and hood, so the team decided it would be best to go the back-up car. The #24 crew was able to get the new setup in the car and get it out on the track in time to put in a few laps in the the last few minutes of practice. According to Robbie Loomis, the car wasn't quite up to race speed yet because it only had a practice motor in it, as evidenced by the 37th place speed on the charts.
Also, NASCAR has decided to make the cars run a 15/16" restrictor plate from 1" after speeds topped 198 mph in the first practice session Saturday morning. This has left the crews even more confused as to what to do with the cars, and engine builders are wondering about how the engines will react to the smaller plates.
Jeff Gordon wrecked his primary car on Saturday during Happy Hour. He went to a backup, but, even after qualifying 8th, he had to go to the rear of the field before the race started. Starting 43rd at Talladega is scary. The driver has to make his way through the field and pray that he does it before a wreck occurs. Jeff was leading the race by lap 13!
The lead went back and forth all day. Drivers were running 3 and 4 wide. A lead pack of about 7 or 8 cars would pull away for a lap or two, but the rest would catch up quickly. No one had a dominant car. No make was dominant, regardless of what some teams think.
The race only had 3 cautions. The first two were minor incidents. The third came out on lap 168. Jeff Gordon used hand signals to let everyone know that he was going in the pits. He stepped on the brakes and started to go down. Behind him, Mark Martin and Bobby Hamilton got together and started spinning towards the inside wall. Jeff saw them behind him and sped up.
"I didn't know what in the world was going on,"Gordon said. "I was just coming to pit road, waving my hands like normal. I got on the brakes and the next thing I know I saw cars in my mirror so I let off the brake to try to get ahead of them. We got really lucky that nobody got into us."
Gordon stopped on pit road and fueled up. He was allowed to do his pit stop because, according to Nascar rules, he was already on pit road when the caution came out. The incident let Gordon take the lead on the restart. But, he quickly got shuffled back.
During that pit stop, Dale Earnhardt to fuel and two tires and came out 15th. He tired using the outside line to move up, but went back to 23rd. He was in 18th with five laps to go. Then, it was vintage Earnhardt. Kenny Wallace got behind him and Joe Nemechek, Kenny's teammate, got behind Kenny. It was a three car power train and no one was able to stop it.
On lap 187, Earnhardt blew by his teammate, Mike Skinner, to take the lead, bringing Wallace and Nemechek with him. Behind them, the rest of the field bunched up to 3 wide racing. Earnhardt, Wallace, and Nemechek broke away from the pack. But, that meant that it would be difficult for Wallace and Nemechek to do anything with Earnhardt.
"Joe and I knew what we had to do,"Wallace said. "But when the three of us broke away there on the last lap it was over because we didn't have any help."
Earnhardt held them off and crossed the finish line first. Earnhardt didn't know how he won. "To think anybody could come from as far back in the field as we were and win this race is beyond me," he said. "You saw it. I couldn't believe it."
"I personally won the race for him," Wallace said of Earnhardt. "And he owes me. You're at Talladega, thinking you've got a shot to win the race, and he's just the master."
Jeff Gordon ended up finishing fourth, a spot he was happy with. "It was pretty hairy at times," Gordon said,"white knuckling it through some areas where I never thought my car -- I don't know how wide my car is, but I know there are some spots out there that weren't as wide as my racecar that I was putting it in."
"I've got to hand it to the race drivers,"Earnhardt said. "They all worked good together. It was a pretty good day, seeing that kind of racing side-by-side and thre and four wide and nobody got in trouble. It was good hard racing, but I still don't like restrictor plate racing. I'm not that good at it."
Yeah, right, Dale. Tell us another one.
With his 4th place finish, Gordon moved ahead of Ward Burton in the points up to 9th. Bobby Labonte is still leading the points race, with Earnhardt 210 points back and charging.
----59 year old Dave Marcis, owner and driver of the #71 Realtree Chevrolet, qualified ninth for the Winston 500. He had to race with his qualifying engine. The engine went away at lap 101, but Dave stayed right with the leaders all day, even charging his way to the lead for one lap.
----Mike Bliss, driver of the #27 Pfizer/Viagra Pontiac, was the top finishing rookie, leading four laps along the way.
----Congratulations to Richard Sturtz of Mt. Savage, MD on winning The No Bull Million after he was teamed up with Earnhardt for The Winston 500.
----The five drivers eligible for the next No Bull race at Las Vegas in March are: Earnhardt, K.Wallace, Nemechek, J. Gordon, and T. Labonte
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