Wallace wins at Bristol

Fireworks marked the conclusion of the NASCAR Winston Cup 500-lapper at Bristol, but they paled in comparison to the on-track action that included smoke, flames, 14 caution flags and the season's first four-time winner.

Wallace wins at Bristol

Rusty Wallace impressed a crowd of 145,000 under the lights, leading the most laps after starting from the pole, and beating Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt and Ward Burton to the finish. He led the most laps (the safest place to be was at the front) on the way to sweeping both Bristol visits this year and ninth at this short-track speed palace.

"We had a great hot-rod tonight," said a surprisingly fresh-looking Wallace in Victory Lane, "and there were a lot of close calls. We're having a great season, what with all these laps led, eight poles and four wins!" 'Hot-rod' was a timely phrase in a race after which several drivers - including points leader Bobby Labonte - required medical attention for dehydration. Caution flags and more than a dozen wrecks, one a fireball, stretched tempers and tightened the points race.

As a result of a quirk of the NASCAR points system, only Wallace has four wins, yet he ranks fifth in the championship, 290 behind Labonte. After a lousy night, Labonte's margin over Dale Jarrett slipped to 91, with Earnhardt 195 in arrears.

Bristol is as important as it is exciting, a food-blender of a race that can turn the season points standings on their ear.

From the start it was going to be a challenging night for the top two contenders, as Labonte and Jarrett failed to qualify fast enough to pit in one of the 21 stalls along the front straight of the cramped infield. The remainder of the cars had to pit on the back stretch - from where it's generally believed a win is impossible because of the lag of the safety car reaching the turn two entrance. Earnhardt's win in this race a year ago is the exception - thanks in part to some rough driving in which he punted Terry Labonte in the closing laps.

Earnhardt's 17th starting spot served him well this night, as he wasted no time muscling into the top five before 140 laps were down. In a portent of things to come, the 10-time Bristol winner was lapping the .533 mile bowl faster than anyone on 110-lap old tyres and running third on lap 200. He led a lap during a green flag pit cycle, as did Labonte.

An assortment of spins and bumps brought out the yellow flag five times in the early going. Perhaps the most devastating - emotionally - occurred on lap 90 when Martin punted Darrell Waltrip, the all-time Bristol winner, into the wall and out of his last appearance racing in his home state.

"I've been lucky over the years," said an emotional Waltrip who retires at season's end. "I won seven in a row, but I guess I overdrew from my luck bank."

The class of the field this night were Wallace and Stewart. Wallace led from the green until tapped out of the way by Stewart on lap 148. Outside polesitter Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Earnhardt and Mark Martin owned the rest of the front. But this is a race of endurance, attrition and a little luck...and often a race with two faces.

Gordon's engine soured just after the halfway, and Labonte - the biggest beneficiary of the rare green-flag pit cycle because of the twin pit roads - ran in the top ten. 50 laps later, he suffered a reversal of fortune.... tapped into a spin and losing a lap to the leaders. The Texan complained of leg cramps but would not request a relief driver. Meanwhile, Martin got his first sniff of the lead when he ducked beneath Stewart on lap 276 to take the point, albeit briefly.

The planets must have misaligned about lap 352. Earnhardt thought he was losing a tyre, Labonte was cramping and - just as the two got side-by-side, Mike Skinner wrecked in front of the group. Earnhardt's team-mate slid down the high banking and touched the points leader. Though Labonte may have sustained damage, he rejected losing any track position and remained out through a brief restart and a quick caution for debris from all the excitement.

Just 12 cars were on the lead lap when the green waved with 120 to go. Wallace was again at the front, trailing Martin, Marlin, Steve Park and Earnhardt. A tenth caution on lap 383 brought the leaders in for gas and tyres. Wallace was first out with Earnhardt on his rear deck. But the Goodwrench crew's fast pit stop was for naught as they failed to get all of the lug nuts back on Earnhardt's car. He pitted a second time and fell to 12th - last - on the lead lap.

Cautions breed cautions and the 11th was one to write home about. Robert Pressley, whose car was involved in at least two other crashes, just escaped a fiery end after his car was slammed rear-first into the turns 1-2 wall by Scott Pruett. Thousands of spectators were illuminated by the hot flames as the car came to rest on the apron and Pressley scurried safely out.

The leader throughout was Stewart, who did not pit with the field before the mayhem and had older tyres. Stewart was shuffled to second on the lap 411 restart and faced with the prospect of making them work for 75 more laps. Fresh rubber, meanwhile, propelled Earnhardt through the field after a 12th caution that ended a top ten run for Ted Musgrave. Earnhardt was up to 8th with 50 laps remaining as his son spun behind him and drew the 13th caution. The melee continued when Bobby Hamilton raced to the flagstand (in an effort to get back on the lead lap) and drove into Jeremy Mayfield's car. Wholesale pit stops ensued.

The prospect of a chequered flag made the field even racier when the green waved with 40 laps remaining. Wallace, Stewart and Martin were joined by a racy Earnhardt. Wallace enjoyed a commanding lead with 12 laps remaining, but lapped traffic was slowing the Miller Ford. Stewart closed in on the leader but he was running out of time, as Wallace survived to pick up his 53rd career victory.

Results from Bristol
Pos # Driver Sponsor Make Laps Points
1 2 Rusty Wallace Miller Lite Ford 500 10 185
2 20 Tony Stewart Home Depot Pont 500 5 175
3 6 Mark Martin Valvoline Ford 500 5 170
4 3 Dale Earnhardt GM Goodwrench Chev 500
5 165 5 1 Steve Park Pennzoil Chev 500 155
6 99 Jeff Burton Exide Batteries Ford 500 5 155
7 21 Elliott Sadler Citgo Ford 500 5 151
8 40 Sterling Marlin Coors Light Chev 500 5 147
9 88 Dale Jarrett Quality Care Ford 500 5 143
10 28 Ricky Rudd Texaco/Havoline Ford 500 134
11 22 Ward Burton Caterpillar Pont 499 5 135
12 36 Ken Schrader M&M's Pont 499 127
13 10 Johnny Benson Aaron's Rents Pont 499 124
14 31 Mike Skinner Lowe's Chev 499 121
15 18 Bobby Labonte Interstate Pont 499 5 123
16 5 Terry Labonte Kellogg's Chev 499 5 120
17 01 Ted Musgrave BellSouth Chev 499 112
18 16 Kevin Lepage FamilyClick.com Ford 499 5 114
19 7 Michael Waltrip NationsRent Chev 499 106
20 43 John Andretti STP/Cheerios Pont 499 103
21 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr Budweiser Chev 499 100
22 44 Kyle Petty Hot Wheels Pont 499 97
23 24 Jeff Gordon DuPont Chev 499 94
24 26 Jimmy Spencer Big Kmart Ford 498 5 96
25 60 Geoffrey Bodine Power Team Chev 498 88
26 55 Kenny Wallace Square D Chev 498 85
27 33 Joe Nemechek Oakwood Homes Chev 498 82
28 11 Brett Bodine Ralph's Ford 497 79
29 14 Rick Mast Conseco Pont 496 76
30 97 Chad Little John Deere Ford 493 73
31 71 Dave Marcis Realtree Chev 489 70
32 25 Jerry Nadeau Michael Holigan Chev 479 67
33 75 Wally Dallenbach WCW Ford 472 64
34 4 Bobby Hamilton Kodak Film Chev 451 61
35 12 Jeremy Mayfield Mobil 1 Ford 443 58
36 94 David Green McDonald's Ford 416 55
37 77 Robert Pressley Jasper Ford 395 52
38 32 Scott Pruett Tide Ford 391 49
39 17 Matt Kenseth DeWalt Tools Ford 376 46
40 9 Bobby Hillin Kodiak Ford 314 43
41 13 Robby Gordon Menards Ford 121 40
42 66 Darrell Waltrip Big Kmart Ford 107 37
43 93 Dave Blaney Amoco Pont 49 34

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