Winning under green
Hamilton wins Talladega 500 without caution flags
By Stephen Thomas, CNNSI.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Near the end of the drivers' meeting Sunday morning, Michael Waltrip made a brief plea to his fellow drivers.
"Let's work together and take care of each other," Waltrip said from his seat at the front of the room. "There's no reason we can't have synchronized and safe racing."
Judging by what took place -- or, rather, didn't take place -- during the caution-free Talladega 500, it's clear that the word of the Daytona 500 winner carries some serious weight.
While there was plenty of jockeying for the lead -- there were 37 lead changes among 27 drivers -- the field did precisely as Waltrip suggested. Indeed, for virtually 500 miles, the field seemed to march in lockstep, tethered side-to-side and bumper-to-bumper. At times, with seven rows of cars driving three wide, the field looked and sounded like a wave of fighter bombers gathering to make a bombing run -- with 10 laps to go, the gap between first and 29th was a scant two seconds.
Bobby Hamilton emerged from that flotilla, edging past Tony Stewart just before the white flag. Hamilton then successfully counterpunched throughout the final lap to earn his first Winston Cup win since 1998. Stewart, who led 26 laps, held on for second place while rookie Kurt Busch took third.
How close was the race? Not only were the 29 cars on the lead lap, a NASCAR record for a 500-mile race, but Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Joe Nemechek, who finished fourth through sixth, were separated by 1/1000th of a second.
"This is emotional," an exhausted Hamilton said. "The media has been really hard on me with restrictor plate races, they more or less said I suck. I think my confidence was beat down. I've always sucked as a speedway driver so, to win here, the critics can just kiss my tail."
Because of the restrictor plates, racing at Talladega is, effectively, a chess match played out at 185 miles per hour. And Hamilton was as methodical as any grand master on his way to the win: content to yo-yo through the tightly-bunched pack -- he ran anywhere from 17th to 10th to 23rd to third in the first 120 laps -- confident that he had the car to win at the end.
"The plan was if we got shuffled back, just to run back there for a while," Hamilton said. "I saw DJ doing that [Dale Jarrett ran last for almost the first 100 laps before charging to the front by lap 157; he finished 18th], I knew I just didn't want to go back as far as he did. About halfway through the race, I just said, 'Heck, let's just go to the front and we were able to lead.' I said, 'This is the cat's meow right now, nobody else is doing it.' I just put it in the glove compartment and waited 'til 15 to go. Jimmy [Elledge, his crew chief] told me 18, 17, 16 and at 15 and we took off. We got lucky that Joe [Nemechek, his teammate] was behind us, I'm not sure we could have won the race. We were fast, but Joe helped push us up through there."
A conspiracy-minded sort might imagine that Sunday's race was executed by design, that is, because everyone was so fearful of The Big One, there was a tacit agreement not to do anything stupid. In fact, NASCAR President Mike Helton made an appeal of his own at the drivers' meeting, warning the field to be exceptionally careful out there. The result was the first caution-free race at Talladega since 1997.
"When he stepped up and said that," Hamilton said of Helton's advice, "I thought that was pretty cool. People listen. And they did listen. It really makes you proud to be associated with a group of guys like this."
But not so proud that he didn't appreciate what he himself had done.
"We get paid a lot of money doing this stuff," he said. "I like to earn my keep. It just makes me feel real good to win [car owner] Andy Petree's first race."