Better Safe Than Sorry
Caution prevailed in the first restrictor-plate race since Dale Earnhardt's death
A few minutes after Bobby Hamilton won Sunday's caution-free Talladega 500, Derick Jennings, a crewman for Bobby Labonte, was standing next to Labonte's Pontiac in the garage area and watching as a pickup tried to maneuver past it. "Just don't hit her, buddy," Jennings said with a grin to the truck's driver. "She ain't got a mark on her."
Virtually the same could be said about the other 42 cars that ran in Sunday's field, and seeing so many machines in pristine condition led to sighs of relief from drivers and NASCAR officials alike. Lest anyone forget what Talladega Superspeedway is capable of, a billboard outside Birmingham advertises the Wreck Room at the track's International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, and some of the display of twisted metal inside that room is fitting testimony to Talladega's hallmark: the big one.
Drivers were especially sensitive last week to the possibility of a multicar crash at the 2.66-mile tri-oval because the sport's most popular personality had died during the most recent restrictor-plate race, the Daytona 500. (The Earnhardt Gallery at the track's Hall of Fame is eerily located among the remains in the Wreck Room.) "This is going to be a difficult weekend for the families and the competitors," Ward Burton said two days before the race. "We have all been dreading it since we left Daytona. We have had several conversations with our children about the potential for tragedy."
At the drivers' meeting on Sunday morning, Michael Waltrip, the Daytona 500 champ and an employee of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., implored his fellow racers to be careful and patient, telling them, "I promise, I will take care of y'all if y'all take care of me." Waltrip suggested that the field hold back until about 20 laps (of 188) were left. Most drivers did, and the result was plenty of nondaring passing—21 drivers led in the first 104 laps—and not much excitement. Mostly, the cars paraded around the track in rows of three, clinging to the formation as rigidly as a high school marching band. Hamilton described his early strategy as, "Get the hell out of everybody's way to see how safe it's going to be."
Added Mark Martin, "The drivers deserve a gold medal, but that's not good racing. I just thank the Lord for a safe day. I think the drivers who laid back made it possible. I don't think it would have been possible with a 43-car pack."
With 27 laps to go, Tony Stewart took the lead from Sterling Marlin and actually acted as though he wanted to keep it. He did until Hamilton got around him as they took the white flag. That late pass answered the question of whether a safe race and an exciting finish at Talladega had to be mutually exclusive.
The race itself may have answered the question of who will inherit Earnhardt's mantle as the man to beat in restrictor-plate racing. It certainly isn't the 43-year-old Hamilton, who had never finished better than ninth in 18 previous races at Talladega. Nor is it the presumed heir, Dale Jarrett, who had finished second in five of the last 12 Talladega races but came in 18th on Sunday.
No, chances are the answer to that question is that nobody will dominate as Earnhardt did. "What he taught, he taught to everybody, unfortunately," says Stewart. "Nobody has a real advantage anymore. Nobody knew everything that Earnhardt knew, and nobody ever will."
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