Earnhardt pulls off Talladega surprise

Dale Earnhardt took the final green flag of the Winston 500 in 15th place, then soared from nowhere to win his 76th career race in one of the most hotly-contested NASCAR Winston Cup events ever seen at the Talladega Superspeedway. A crowd of 170,000 spectators were on their feet for the entire race

Earnhardt pulls off Talladega surprise

The master of restrictor-plate racing found a drafting buddy in the late laps, and with Kenny Wallace on his bumper, Earnhardt beat Joe Nemechek, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte across the line. As the surprise winner shook his fist for victory, about ten cars pin-balled behind him in the only major accident of the day.

"I kept trying the high line and couldn't go anywhere," said a jubilant Earnhardt in Victory Lane. "I decided to try the middle line and Kenny Wallace got up behind me and stuck with me to the end!"

Wallace saw it a little differently, but knew that his own highest-finish helped 'The Intimidator.'

"I was out there thinking here I am trying to win the race and I'm going to end up helping Earnhardt," said the second of three racing Wallaces. "I knew better than to hit him in the tri-oval, so me and Joe (Nemechek) think we ought to get half of that bonus money he won!"

The prize money represented RJR Tobacco's "No Bull Five" promotion which earned Earnhardt and a fan an easy $1 million. Perhaps "easy" isn't the right word. Earnhardt had never won the bonus money, but came close at Richmond where he finished second to Gordon, who was later fined for use of an illegal intake manifold.

The Talladega win puts Earnhardt within 210 points of Bobby Labonte and he may be the only driver with a chance of overtaking the Pontiac driver, who finished 12th.

The three-hour event could have been won by anyone in an unusually safe race which saw 22 different leaders. The post-race collision at the start/finish line damaged several cars including those of Rich Bickle, Steve Park and Tony Stewart.

Lap after lap it was hold-your-breath racing - the entire field separated by less than five seconds after 100 miles. The churning mass of steel moved as one at speeds in excess of 185 mph, racing in three and four columns with everyone looking for biggest tow.

The draft was so fast that drivers found themselves literally sucked into the lead car, forcing braking on a track where only the accelerator is normally used and then only ever flat to the floor.

Less than 18 hours before the race, NASCAR changed the rules and distributed a smaller carburretor restrictor plate. The teams had been practicing with a one-inch hole and found themselves using a hole only15/16th's of an inch in diameter in the final practice session.

NASCAR was worried cars could go airborne at this, the fastest stock car track in the world, after practice speeds of almost 200 mph. The short notice for the carburettor adjustments resulted in poleman Nemechek finding himself in 15th place just half a lap after the green flag waved - and the unexpected sight of veteran privateer Dave Marcis, 59, leading on lap two.

Green flag pit stops from laps 47-49 were the only break in the early action as packs of 12 or more cars dropped off the 33-degree banking for tyres and gas. Engines are so finely tuned for maximum horsepower at the 2.6-mile Talladega tri-oval, that exiting the pit lane can be the hardest part of the day for the engine.

The only race attrition in the first 100 laps was engine failure, some of it due to overheating due to taping off too much of the air intake for aerodynamic reasons.

At the halfway mark, Earnhardt paced the field at a record average speed in excess of 183 mph and a second round of green flag laps ensued on lap 98. Moments later, Marcis's Chevy slowed and stopped on the track in turn four, bringing out the first caution on lap 103.

It was a good break for several cars about to go a lap down, especially Jeff Burton who started the race second in the points. He'd not pitted and took the green on lap 109 in 26th place. 35 cars were still on the lead lap and four were in the garage. Gordon, Earnhardt, Jerry Nadeau, Mike Skinner and Rusty Wallace paced the field and points leader Labonte lurked in the top ten.

Cautions beget cautions and Ward Burton's left front tyre failed as he ran at speed in the middle of the track, bringing out the yellow for a second time on lap 114. Burton pitted without further incident and the whole field followed suit a lap later.

After that, things began to get complicated, as teams experimented with fuel-only, and two and four-tyre stops. Mike Bliss led the field to the restart on lap 120, trailing Rusty Wallace, Skinner, Bobby Hamilton, Earnhardt Jr and Earnhardt Sr. After a lot of shuffling that sent Bliss deep into the pack, the 18th driver to lead the race was Car 18 - Labonte - on lap 123.

Early leader Stewart saw his chance for victory seep away on lap 133 when a wobbling tyre forced him to pit and lose a lap to the field. On the track, the Earnhardts went to the front taking the total of drivers to have led the race to 20 out of 43. To further underline the unpredictability of the race, Ward Burton recovered from his woes on lap 114 and was dicing for the lead 35 laps later.

Jeff Burton short-pitted with 25 laps to go, a reminder that few cars could go the distance on fuel. Martin and Bobby Hamilton planned to do just the same on lap 164, but contrived to hit each other with Hamilton's car going hard toward the inside wall and Martin suffering panel damage. The coming together brought out the third caution of the day and a chance to pit and make adjustments on lap 170 out of 188.

The green was waved with 15 laps to go after another mix of tyre and fuel stops, with Gordon in the lead because he pitted as the accident took place behind him. Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt Jr, Skinner and Labonte were also all in the mix, with Earnhardt Sr held up in traffic, running 15th.

Earnhardt was in a second pack of cars running three-wide with eight laps to go, his son leading a single-file breakaway pack with Labonte, Skinner, Rudd and Andretti in tow.

The question of the day was about to be answered. Do you want to be leading on the last lap, or poised in second or third for a slingshot move? Skinner's move to the lead with three to go and an unbelievable spectacle of row after row running four-wide had the crowd gripped.

Then, Earnhardt suddenly came from nowhere and with one lap to go he ran the high line to the front. He shook the tow, aided by Wallace, took the lead and picked up his second win of the year and the one million dollar bonus. As the chequered flag waved, the crowd were finally able to sit down.

Full results from Talladega

1 3 Dale Earnhardt GM Goodwrench Chevy 188
2 55 Kenny Wallace Square D Chevy 188
3 33 Joe Nemechek Oakwood Homes Chevy 188
4 24 Jeff Gordon DuPont Chevy 188
5 5 Terry Labonte Kellogg's Chevy 188
6 31 Mike Skinner Lowe's Chevy 188
7 6 Mark Martin Valvoline Ford 188
8 2 Rusty Wallace Miller Lite Ford 188
9 27 Mike Bliss Viagra Pont. 188
10 17 Matt Kenseth DeWalt Tools Ford 188
11 28 Ricky Rudd Texaco/Havoline Ford 188
12 18 Bobby Labonte Interstate Pont. 188
13 25 Jerry Nadeau Michael Holigan Chevy 188
14 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr Budweiser Chevy 188
15 88 Dale Jarrett Quality Care Ford 188
16 44 Steve Grissom Hot Wheels Pont. 188
17 21 Elliott Sadler Citgo Ford 188
18 97 Chad Little John Deere Ford 188
19 1 Steve Park Pennzoil Chevy 188
20 43 John Andretti STP/Cheerios Pont. 188
21 60 Rich Bickle Power Team Chevy 188
22 22 Ward Burton Caterpillar Pont. 188
23 9 Stacy Compton Kodiak Ford 188
24 94 Bill Elliott McDonald's Ford 188
25 77 Robert Pressley Jasper Ford 188
26 11 Brett Bodine Ralph's Ford 188
27 20 Tony Stewart Home Depot Pont. 187
28 93 Dave Blaney Amoco Pont. 187
29 99 Jeff Burton Exide Batteries Ford 187
30 50 Ricky Craven Midwest Trans. Chevy 187
31 14 Rick Mast Conseco Pont. 187
32 01 Ted Musgrave BellSouth Chevy 186
33 10 Johnny Benson Aaron's Pont. 186
34 7 Michael Waltrip NationsRent Chevy 186
35 66 Darrell Waltrip Big Kmart Ford 186
36 4 Bobby Hamilton Kodak Film Chevy 167
37 36 Ken Schrader M - M's Pont. 166
38 26 Jimmy Spencer Big Kmart Ford 134
39 32 Scott Pruett Tide Ford 120
40 71 Kerry Earnhardt Realtree Chevy 101
41 40 Sterling Marlin Coors Light Chevy 81
42 12 Jeremy Mayfield Mobil 1 Ford 69
43 16 Kevin LePage FamilyClick.com Ford 20

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