Amid a flurry of yellow flags in Bristol, both Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon were winners
Conspiracy theorists around the NASCAR, garages—and there are plenty these days after Kevin Harvick's win at Atlanta in March and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory at Daytona in July—love to note that fans have been treated to more storybook endings this year than a four-year-old with insomnia. If the sanctioning body has been determining finishes, however, it blew a great chance to cook up a sentimental victory in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway last Saturday night.
Four years ago to the weekend, Elliott Sadler was racing in the Busch series Food City 250 the night before the track's Winston Cup race. As Sadler crossed the stage for driver introductions he shook hands with Miss Food City, Lisa Tollett. Sadler was so smitten that he asked his p.r. rep to get Tollett's number. The first digits she gave were wrong—she later claimed it was an accident—but Sadler finally got in touch with her, and they began dating. Last Thursday, upon returning to Bristol, Sadler proposed. "I heard some great ideas for how to do it," he says. "You know, put [the ring] in a wine bottle and get her drunk first, and then the ring's at the bottom so surely she'll say yes. Stuff like that." In the end he chose the conventional approach and dropped to one knee. Tollett, who now also answers to Miss Tennessee, said yes.
A fitting end to the tale would have been a win for Sadler, who picked up his first career victory in the Food City 500 at Bristol in March. Alas, Sadler, who started fourth, finished 11th, largely because of his inability to keep his nose out of trouble. If Saturday's race had in fact been a storybook, it would have been called Oh, the Carnage You'll See. The caution flag flew 16 times, and one lucky fan left the race with two large chunks of a front fender as souvenirs.
Of course, contact is nothing new at Bristol, a half-mile bullring where anything can happen. (Last Friday night, in the Busch race, Harvick was two laps down after 83 of 250 laps but came back to win.) In March, Jeff Gordon bumped Tony Stewart on the last lap to overtake him for third place, prompting Stewart to ram Gordon's car on pit road after the race. The two were much more civilized this time around. Stewart glided past Gordon with 69 laps to go, and when the race stayed green until the finish, he took advantage of his Pontiac's marvelous performance on long runs. "The car could never come on until 20 or 30 laps into a run," said Stewart, "and [before the last 89 laps] we couldn't seem to stay green that long."
Stewart held off Harvick and Gordon for me win, but Gordon was victorious too. He finished third and stretched his points lead to a season-high 308 over runner-up Ricky Rudd with 12 races to go. Both he and Stewart went off into the night with the look of men who will live happily ever after.
The Earnhardt Aftermath
No Simple Solutions
On Aug. 21, NASCAR released a 342-page report from its investigation into the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona last February. According to the report, when Earnhardt's seat belt broke, he hit his head in the cockpit and died from the impact. Lawyers for Bill Simpson, whose company manufactured the belt, immediately criticized NASCAR for not pointing out that Earnhardt had a penchant for wearing his safety belts looser than recommended, which could have caused the break. That triggered a war of words between Simpson and team owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt drove. Said Childress in hopes of ending the dispute, "We now all owe it to Dale, Dale's family, friends and fans to bring this matter to closure."
But attaining closure isn't going to be easy. For all its charts, diagrams and explanations, NASCAR's report didn't pinpoint a single cause of the fatality. The seat belt was merely a contributing factor, along with Earnhardt's collision with Ken Schrader's car and the angle at which Earnhardt's car hit the wall. Although NASCAR announced that each car will carry a crash recorder next year and that the organization will work to improve track medical facilities, it took no other steps to prevent fatal crashes in the future. In explaining the decision not to require drivers to use a head-and-neck restraint (which Earnhardt wasn't wearing), CEO Mike Helton said, "We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting."
Taking a more proactive stance is HA. (Humpy) Wheeler, the 61-year-old owner of Lowe's Motor Speedway. Last year he began crusading for "soft walls," going so far as to drop a Cadillac nose-first 60 feet onto a prototype wall in a demonstration for the press. (The idea never really caught on.) His latest crusade is for a new bumper that would dissipate energy in a crash.