Wow... Here we sat... the first-ever PRIME TIME NASCAR race on TeeVee... By that I guess they mean the first-ever on one of the "Big Three" networks - ignoring of course, ESPN, TNN, etc, etc... This meant, of course, more verbal histrionics from Ken Squier, and his protege (I guess...) Bryant Gumbel... Now, I usually don't rant about TV coverage right off the start, but....
Ready for primetime?
Anyhoo, there was a race, the PEPSI 400, happening behind the veil of commercials, and it was a pretty good one, from what I saw! Very clean for a restrictor-plate race; word was Rusty laid down the law in the drivers' meeting, sayin' basically you all don't need to fight every pass, wait until your chance comes, don't do anything stupid. By and large everyone lived to that, although there were a couple hairy moves in the last couple dozen laps.
Chad Little lined up fourth, then Wallace, Stewart, Marlin, Skinner, Bobby Labonte, Earnhardt, Gordon and Jarrett rounded out the top twelve. Jeff Burton lined up 37th. He'd lost an engine in first round qualifying, and had to go in round two.
Loy Allen, in the #58 Turbine Solution machine, made his first race (1 for 4), in 31st, and Ricky Craven put the #50, ex-Pardus, Midwest Transit car in 30th (1 for 1...).
Missing the cut this week were Stanton Barrett, in Junie's #90, Stricklin, in the #91 Joe Falk car, Ken Bouchard, and regulars Pressley and Cope. Tough, tough year for Cope! 6 for 17?
Notable new paint jobs included Ernie Irvan in blue livery - quite spiff; and Jerry Nadeau, with a strange WWF (WCW?) rasslin' sponsorship design. Diecasts already on the way from China...
By lap 5, Little had hooked up with Rudd, and they had taken the first two spots. Skinner was third, Front-Row Joe fourth, then Earnhardt, Wallace, Jarrett, Gordon, Elliott, Mike Waltrip, Hamilton, and Bobby Labonte rounded out the top twelve. Loy Allen had fallen to the end of the pack, and Stewart was still goin' backwards, settlin' into 20th on Lap 9.
For the next ten laps, the first dozen in-fought hard to get to the front, with Wallace and Gordon movin' up, while Nemechek got back into it, nearly takin' out Rudd, and the racin' was 200mph, 3 wide. By lap 19, the first six had sorted out single file, with Wallace leading Gordon, Skinner, Earnhardt, Little, and Jarrett. Jeff Burton was up to 16th, and Stewart was still mired back in 20th. Earnhardt gritted his teeth, and in the next three laps, passed team mate Skinner, and Gordon, to take second behind Wallace. Gordon began to drop back over next few laps, with Skinner and Little passin' him (Lap 27?), then Skinner repassing Earnhardt.
- early on...
'Tweren't long before Dale, Bobby 'n Dale had triple-teamed Rusty. By Lap 43, he was fourth, and Jarrett, a master of this type of racin' had maneouvred himself into the lead. (It must be frustrating to try and Dance with Dale Jarrett, who seems to read this type of racin' real well - as soon as he detects you're a nanosecond slower than the guy beside you - that you think he's helpin' you draft past - he bails on you, and leaves you wonderin' what the Hell happened... as you slide back a half-dozen spots...)
While all this was goin' on, the "other Labonte" - Terry, had the Kellogg's car on the move, and was up to sixth place.
The front order now stabilized, as we approached the first set of pit stops. On lap 49, Jarrett was leading, followed by Wallace, Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte, Little, Terry Labonte, Skinner, Dallenbach, and Rudd. Stewart had worked back up to 11th, and Gordon was down to 15th.
the first stops...
at 200 mph!...
Jarrett held the lead for the next half-dozen laps, but around Lap 75, Wallace and Earnhardt drafted by him. It was around here that the program content went to damn-near 50% commercials, guess the 3-wide 200mph stuff was considered too dull, and expendable... during one break, Labonte took third from Jarrett, who retook it during the next set of commercials... Ward Burton used the commercials as a stealth cover to sneak up into fourth place past Skinner, so, on Lap 85, running order of top twelve was Wallace, Earnhardt, Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Ward Burton, Skinner, Stewart, Gordon, Andretti, Dallenbach, Jeff Burton, and Irwin. Terry Labonte was thirteenth, and Irvan and Little rounded out the top fifteen. We had about thirty cars still on the lead lap. In his first outing with the #50 MidWest Transit team, it was disappointing to see that Ricky Craven had to park with steering problems at this point.
We got the first caution of the night on lap 85, well past the half-way point, when rain was reported on the track. Everyone took advantage of this four-lap break to stop for tires, gas and fine-tuning. Dale Earnhardt had the best stop, and came out in the lead, followed by Wallace, Jarrett, Ward Burton, Skinner, Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Bobby Labonte.
The race restarted on Lap 89, and Earnhardt jumped out to a good lead.... Too good, it turned out, as Wallace, Jarrett, Ward Burton, Skinner and Gordon lined up and drafted around him, putting him to fifth by Lap 94.
And so it continued - excellent racing by all. On lap 110, 51 to go, the front twenty cars were separated by only 1.8 seconds, and there were 29 cars on the lead lap. Leading was Dale Earnhardt, with Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Skinner, Jarrett, Gordon, Ward Burton, Dallenbach, Irvan, Irwin, Jeff Burton,Stewart, Andretti, Terry Labonte and Rudd making up the top fifteen spots. Lap 115 saw Wallace retake the lead, and further back, Ward Burton was movin' up, as were Dallenbach, Jeff Burton, Stewart and Terry Labonte. Gordon began to fade once more, ending up in eleventh at this point (Lap 120 - 122 or so).
Once all the leaders had cycled through, Jarrett had the lead, lookin' comfortable - although there ware questions as to whether he'd got enough fuel for fifteen greenflag laps! We broke away for a commercial(s), only to come back to a caution, only the second of the night, about Lap 148, for "debris" on the track...
Interestingly, the "debris" was the catchcan from the car of Jarrett's team mate, Irwin, who'd taken the can back onto the track, still hung on the overflow tube, after his stop. Hmmmm... Although, under the yellow, DJ lost the ground he'd gained over the field, he now got to run a couple laps under yellow, allowing him to conserve some precious fuel.
Under this caution, everyone from fifth on back pitted for tires. (and gas?) The front five, Jarrett, Wallace, Skinner, Bobby Labonte, and Stewart, were forced by their situation to stay out.
The green flew once again, on Lap 151, with ten to go. Jarrett, chased still by Wallace, led off, with Skinner, Bobby Labonte, Stewart, Terry Labonte, Earnhardt, Gordon, Mayfield (!??), Jeff Burton, Rudd, and Martin(!!!) following to make up the lead dozen.
The lead five charged out front, but Stewart got another resrictoracin' lesson, goin' high to pass or follow Labonte around Skinner, only to be thwarted, and havin' to back out, losin' serious mo'. In a flash, Earnhardt and Jeff Burton were by him, forcin' Tony to settle into sixth, just ahead of Skinner.
Lap 155 saw Labonte side-by-side with Wallace, and Bobby ultimately took the spot, with Earnhardt followin' him through. Earnhardt and Jeff Burton continued to charge, and by Lap 157, DE had taken second from Labonte, who was tryin' to hold off a determined Burton.
Replays showed that the whole mess was triggered when Dallenbach and Mayfield tangled, spinning Jeremy, and causing Sadler to go for a wild infield ride, and Spencer to scrape away the right side of the WINSTON Taurus on the wall, while tryin' to avoid Mayfield. Gordon, although he did not get involved in any serious contact, lost many places, as he had to get on the binders in avoidance.
Behind Jarrett, Earnhardt and Burton, the rest of the top twelve consisted of Skinner, Bobby Labonte, Stewart, Ward Burton, Hamilton, Wallace, Irvan, Terry Labonte and Sterling Marlin. The lap 157 incident really jumbled things behind that - Rudd, Irwin and Kenny Wallace rounded out the top fifteen, while Sadler ended up 22nd, Gordon 24th, Mayfield 25th, and Dallenbach 26th. Spencer was 27th, and Martin 28th.
So, in spite of the best (worst) CBS could do, we got a pretty entertaining race, with a lot of good racing, but reasonably considerate behaviour (for stock car drivers with restrictor plates...) throughout the race. The fact there was only one accident-related yellow showed how good these guys were. Wonder if night racin', with better and more consistent traction, and more consistent lighting, had a role in this?
Jarrett, of course, was able to extend his Points lead, over Bobby Labonte, to 177 Points - almost a full race difference after 17 races! Martin is third, 234 back, Jeff Burton fourth, and Gordon fifth, now over 400 back. A three-peat for Jeffie is gettin' less and less likely! But, there's always next week, and we'll be in Loudon, New Hampshire , to see how Jeff, Dale, Jeff, Dale, Mark, Tony and Bobby fare in the Jiffylube 300.