The big news this year was the ultra-smoothness of the track, recently subjected to a smoothing, with some fancy gizmo using a laser guidance system. Thirty two cars beat the pole record of 1998, even among second-rounders, thirteen were faster than 1998! Altho Goodyear were confident their tires were up to it, they recommended using scuffed tires, which had gone thru one heat cycle on the track. To accomplish this, NASCAR extended the Saturday "happy hour" by 30 minutes, to do tire scuffing.
front and centre...
it's their race...
Fastest among the qualifiers were Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin. Rounding out the top twelve were Kenny Wallace, Lepage, Petty, Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Mayfield, Skinner, Sadler, and Andretti. Gordon was 14th, Stewart, 24th - we need to start trackin' that boy these days..., Earnhardt 34th, and Jeff Burton, second in points, 37th. Three drivers did not make the field - Stricklin, in Junie Donlevy's #90, RotY combatant Buckshot Jones, and veteran Darrell Waltrip(! - DW used up all his available Champion Prov's, and was too low in standings vs others, such as Jeff Burton, who needed to fall back on Provisionals.)
under hot sunny skies...
After clean-up, the green flew on lap 14, with the top twelve being Martin, Bobby Labonte, Jarrett, Lepage, Kenny Wallace, Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Mayfield, Sadler, Skinner, Gordon, and Ward Burton. Jarrett got around Labonte a couple laps into the run, and by lap 20, Jeff Burton had moved up to 28th, Earnhardt was up one to 33rd.
Funny line: When asked by the pitside TNN guy if they could get the SKOAL Chevy back in the race, Kenny Schrader replied: "I'm afraid so..."
Over the next several laps, main action was Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Stewart moving forward. By lap 45, Gordon was up to fourth place, 4.9 second behind leader Martin, with Jarrett and Bobby Labonte second and third. Stewart was up to tenth(!), and Jeff Burton had fought thru to 21st. Earnhardt was up to thirtieth place - slow progress.... Lap 45 saw Jeff Burton 18th, and Stewart 8th!
Thanks to the longish green flag run we were in, Martin was mowin' down the field... by lap 62, there were 29 cars on the lead lap, with DESr in 30th, havin' just been lapped. As fast as Martin and the leaders were, Stewart was layin' it on 'em! By lap 86, he was third, behind Martin and Labonte. Jarrett was fourth, then Kenny Wallace, brother Rusty, Gordon, Irwin, Elliott, Jeff Burton, Mayfield and Lepage made up the top twelve. Note Burton's progress - 37th to 10th, in 86 laps!
After all the leaders had cycled thru, around Lap 105, Martin, Labonte and Stewart were still out front. Over the next few laps, both GIBBS cars passed Martin for first and second.
Lap 127 saw Mayfield pass Jeff Burton for ninth; top ten order was Stewart, Labonte, Martin, Rusty Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Gordon, Jarrett, Skinner, Mayfield and Jeff Burton. there were only fourteen cars left on the lead lap, and all were scattered around the track.
Not too much change over the next 40 laps. Only ten were on the lead lap by lap 160 - Stewart, still out front, then Bobby Labonte, Martin, Rusty wallace, Gordon, Kenny Wallace, Jarrett, Skinner, Mayfield and Jeff Burton.
The green finally flew on lap 177, with Stewart leading off, and Irwin desperately tryin' to get out front, and stay on the lead lap. The net effect of this was that Stewart got pinned, and Labonte got back into the lead around lap 180.
At the halfway point, lap 200, Stewart had repassed Labonte, and Gordon was by Martin into third. This order largely held over the next 25 laps. Lap 227 saw Gordon take second from Labonte. Stewart got by Skinner, leavin' nine cars on the lead lap.
Back to the race... We ran green until lap 260 or so, then green flag stops began. By lap 275 all leaders had cycled thru, and running order on lead lap was Gordon, Stewart, Martin, Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Mayfield, Rusty Wallace, Jarrett, and Jeff Burton, still nine cars. Earnhardt was in tenth, a lap down.
The third caution came during commercials, as Little looped the John Deere car, around lap 278, just in front of leader Gordon. Only those on the back of the lead lap, including Rusty, Jarrett, and Jeff Burton, pitted - no track position to lose. The green flew again on lap 285, with JG out front.
Everyone on the lead lap pitted once again, except Jarrett, Burton and Wallace, as we were gettin' near the fuel window to go to the end - still too long at 110 laps, but ya never know...
Once again, the yellow was extended, so that a member of Rusty's crew, who'd had a leg injury from an errant lugnut, or airgun, or both, in the previous stop, could be taken out of the infield in an ambulance to have an injured leg tended to.... hard to explain - apparently, on his pitstop, the lugnut fell under the rear wheel, as did the gun(?), and when Rusty stomped it to leave, he spun the gun/nut back into the leg of the gasman, causing a severe enough injury that it was in splints... Bobby Labonte, on lap 295, snuck in for a top up... interesting...
So now we had one car, Labonte, with a shot at going the distance. Everyone else would need to get a splash of gas within the last ten laps.
The gren flew on lap 296 - 104 to go. Due to not stopping, Jarrett was out front, followed by Jeff Burton, Wallace, Gordon, Martin, Stewart, Mayfield and Bobby Labonte.
Ten laps later, Jarrett as still in front, but Gordon had taken second. Following were Wallace, Martin, Stewart, Burton - slipping back on two tires, Mayfield and Bobby Labonte. By lap 312, Gordon was leading, and Stewart was back to third, behind Jarrett. Lap 324 saw Stewart grab second from Jarrett, and Labonte was moving up slowly.
No dramatic change over next 35 laps, running order on lap 360 had JG still out front, then Stewart, Martin, who'd got by Jarrett around lap 326, Jarrett, Labonte, Wallace, Mayfield and Jeff Burton rounding out the lead lap. Down a lap were Earnhardt, Irwin, Benson and Skinner makin' up the top twelve.
After closin' to within a half-second, Stewart pitted on lap 367, for gas and FOUR TIRES! (???? - guess they hoped the extra speed would offset the lost time - likely why they came in early for gas...)
Ten laps later, the "splash 'n go" cycle began among the leaders. Lap 378 saw Jarrett in for a splash, followed on lap 382 by Mayfield and Burton. Lap 386, and Wallace was in, with Martin in on the next lap.
and loses the race...
So, as the smoke cleared, Labonte's MBNA Pontiac won the MBNA 400. How fitting! Rounding out the rising fortunes of Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart came home a respectable fourth.
on fuel strategy...
In the points chase, Jarrett extended his lead, with 1984 points, to 51 over second-place Jeff Burton. Bobby Labonte is third, then Martin and Stewart. Gordon's good finish moved him up two, to sixth, ahead of Earnhardt and Wallace. Ward Burton and Terry Labonte round out the top ten.
So, next week, Father's Day (not...see below...), we're in Michigan for the KMART 400 on CBS. Say, maybe there should be a special provisional if the race is named after your sponsor - right, DW? Worked real good for Bobby today! Here's hopin' all you dads get to do your fave Sunday afternoon thing, and settle in front of the tube to watch!
(MONDAY NITE UPDATE #2: Actually, Father's Day is still TWO weeks away, on the 20th... POCONO Race day. Apply above platitude on the 20th instead... still hope y'all get to watch Michigan...)