Work in Sports
Earnhardt rallies to take 10th career win at Talladega
Updated: Thursday October 19, 2000 9:41 AM
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Just think how good Dale Earnhardt would be if he liked restrictor-plate racing.
The Intimidator, who loudly proclaims to dislike the horsepower-sapping plates used for more than a decade at NASCAR's biggest tracks -- Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway -- showed his mastery again Sunday by charging from behind to win the Winston 500.
Earnhardt slashed through a crowd at 185 mph, racing from 18th to first in four laps, then held off the desperate efforts of Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek to pick up his 10th win at Talladega and 22nd victory with a restrictor plate.
Earnhardt, who led seven times for 34 of the 188 laps, fell victim to the shifting fortunes of a race in which upwards of 25 cars were constantly battling in a pack at the front of the field and there were 49 lead changes among 21 drivers.
After the leaders pitted during the last of three caution periods in the race, the 49-year-old Earnhardt, chasing series leader Bobby Labonte for what would be a record eighth Winston Cup championship, found himself 15th for the restart on lap 174.
In heavy traffic, often long lines of speeding cars running three-wide on the 33-degree banked oval, Earnhardt slipped back to 18th by lap 183.
Suddenly, the crowd of more than 140,000 -- many of them longtime Earnhardt fans -- was screaming as the black and orange No. 3 Chevrolet sliced through traffic and moved toward the front.
"To think we could be 18th five laps from the end and win like that is beyond me," Earnhardt said with a shake of his head. "As the day went on, we moved back and forth. Nobody had a dominant car that could stay up front.
"When we were behind there, it didn't look like we had the opportunity to win the race. I was just trying to get up front to get a top 10 or get back in contention."
At the end of lap 186, he trailed teammate Mike Skinner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte.
By the time the lead pack got back to the finish line, Earnhardt was in the lead, just ahead of his son. As the leaders began lap 188, Dale Jr. wiggled and slowed just enough to hold up the inside lane and let his father, Wallace and Nemechek get a little breathing room on the field.
He gave a lot of the credit for the victory to Wallace and Nemechek, who helped push him to the lead.
"That's how I won the race," Earnhardt said. "Those three Chevrolets worked together and went to the front."
After moving ahead of the pack, Earnhardt then had to contend with the two Andy Petry Racing drivers behind him.
"I thought Nemechek and Wallace would draft back by me on the front straightaway because of the way cars had drafted all day," Earnhardt said. "I didn't think one car could hold two cars off. But I worked up and down the race track and kept the air broke up and, somehow, I won it."
Wallace, who had yet to win a race, said, "Me and Joe knew what we had to do, but when the the three of us broke away there on the last lap, it was over because we didn't have any help."
Earnhardt beat Wallace's Chevy to the line by about two car-lengths, earning his record 10th Talladega victory and fourth in this event.
In fact, he has now won three of the last four races here and finished third in April in the Talladega 500.
His 76th career victory and second of the season also gained Earnhardt a $1 million bonus from the series sponsor.
The inevitable big Talladega crash actually came after the checkered flag fell as Rich Bickle and Ward Burton, racing near the rear of the big lead pack, banged together just past the finish line and ignited a melee that wound up involving four cars.
Nobody was injured in that wreck or in the one other crash, involving Mark Martin and Bobby Hamilton, and the relatively clean race vindicated NASCAR's 11th-hour rule change.
NASCAR has required power-sapping carburetor restrictor plates at this track since 1988 and has adjusted horsepower production by reducing and increasing the holes in the plates.
In an effort to give the drivers more power to get out of tight situations and help them keep up in the draft, the sanctioning body ordered the plates opened up from seven-eighths of an inch to one inch. But that produced too much speed in practice on Saturday morning and NASCAR took the unprecedented step of making a major rule change between the end of qualifying and the final practice session.
"How could NASCAR do a better job?" Wallace asked. "It came down to the last half lap. I looked right [into the stands] one time and saw everybody standing. I don't think the rules can get any better."
Asked about the late rule change, Earnhardt laughed and said, "I don't like restrictor-plate racing and I never have."
Nevertheless, his latest restrictor-plate win, combined with Labonte's 12th-place finish, moved Earnhardt past Jeff Burton into second place and sliced 42 points off Labonte's lead. With four races remaining, Labonte, aiming for his first title, is ahead by 210 points.
Burton, who was never in contention and finished a lap down in 29th, fell to third, 308 points behind Labonte.