Dale Earnhardt rose from the couch in the back of his team's big black race-car transporter and began dressing for battle in Sunday's NASCAR stock car race on the twisty 2.428-mile road course of the Watkins Glen International raceway. "I guarantee you," he said as he slipped into his fire-retardant suit, "Rusty will be upside someone in Turn 1 today." He was referring to his sometime best buddy, defending Winston Cup point champion Rusty Wallace, and by "be upside" Earnhardt meant "run into."
A few minutes later Ricky Rudd would make his own prediction as he climbed into his car, 12th on the grid after he flubbed a turn on his qualifying lap. "I'm in no hurry to move up front," he said. "I'm just going to let them all go race each other. They'll come back to me. They always do on these road courses. And when they do, they're usually facing the wrong way."
Well, if anyone can predict how a race driver is going to proceed, it's another race driver, and Earnhardt and Rudd just about aced the forecast. Unhappily, little did Earnhardt suspect that the "someone" that Wallace would run into would be Earnhardt himself. Halfway through the race Earnhardt was knocked off the track and out of the lead by Wallace in, as foreseen, Turn 1. And the cool and patient Rudd watched more impetuous drivers float backward past his windshield as he sped to victory by 6.54 seconds over a field of still spinning and crashing stock cars.
Not that Rudd, who ranks with Wallace as one of NASCAR's top road runners, didn't do some spinning and banging of his own. He almost blew his prediction on the 10th lap when he jammed his Chevy inside Alan Kulwicki's Ford on the first turn, and kept jamming even though the way was blocked by another Ford, driven by Geoff Bodine. Both he and Bodine went careering off the asphalt. "Couldn't get it to whoa down," Rudd explained later. By the time he got it all together, Rudd was well back in the 40-car field. But that was only the first of three times he would drop down in the standings; deflating tires forced him into the pits on Lap 33 and again on Lap 42. Rudd latched on to the lead for good on the 81st of 90 laps, after his crew chief, Waddell Wilson, strategically cut his final pit stop about 10 seconds short by changing only two tires.
Earnhardt had qualified on the pole with a course record of 121.190 mph, thereby showing that he can too use the brake pedal. He was on a roll, and was psyched up for what he intended to make his first road-racing win. Many observers were surprised by Earnhardt's sudden prowess at steering both right and left, but he just drawled it away, describing his road-racing style as "same as I always drive...like somebody's chasin' me." When Waddell Wilson saw Earnhardt's gleaming black number 3 Chevy sitting on the pole, he said, "Dale will be about as hard to get around as a double-wide trailer on a two-lane highway."
Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, says, "Every time you think Dale's as good as he can be, he gets a little better." Maybe at Watkins Glen he should have been a little badder, at least to his very good friend Wallace. Earnhardt led the first eight laps until Wallace passed him and led for nine. They didn't come together again until Lap 42, when they kept the crowd of an estimated 120,000 fans on its feet with bumper-to-bumper racing through the gorgeous green upstate New York countryside. Earnhardt held off Wallace's Pontiac for three hot laps until Wallace "got a little eager" and nailed him in the passenger door, knocking Earnhardt to the back of the pack.
Wallace fell to third after the rubout, which happened at a spot on the course where both pit crews could witness the action. Childress strolled over to Barry Dodson, Wallace's crew chief, and began to strongly express his disappointment over Wallace's lack of restraint. "You can quit your bitching," Dodson yelled back at Childress. "We just blowed up on the back straight." The engine failure ended Wallace's day, while Earnhardt eventually finished seventh.
Bodine, a native of nearby Chemung, N.Y., took over the lead when Wallace and Earnhardt spun on Lap 45, but Mark Martin grabbed it five laps later. Martin, who came into the race leading Earnhardt by one point for the 1990 NASCAR championship, was badly handicapped after being severely jolted in a practice on Thursday. After tire troubles caused him to lose the lead, he finished fifth and increased his margin over Earnhardt to 10 points, 2,669 to 2,659. Bodine finished second, a few feet ahead of his younger brother Brett, sending the fans home happy, although it took them a while to get there; traffic on the two-lane roads to the track were clogged.
When a yellow flag came out on the 85th lap, the field bunched up for a three-lap sprint to the finish. Rudd rocketed away from Kulwicki, who was in second at the time but was nursing and cursing his slipping clutch. Kulwicki's problems held up any other contenders, so it was an easy drive to the checkered flag for Rudd.
But not for anyone else. On the last lap about 17 drivers all decided they had to finish second. Space does not permit an account of all the doors and fenders crumpled in the Turn 1 scramble that ensued. It was briefly described by rookie Tom Kendall, who ended up eighth when the smoke cleared: "I was just trying to stay clear of the fireworks, and those guys were going absolutely nuts." If Kendall's comments seem a bit breathless, maybe it's because he was chased around his pit by an irate car owner swinging a cane. That was Billy Hagan, expressing the feelings of his driver, Sterling Marlin, who had spun from sixth to 15th. Marlin blamed the the whole thing on Kendall, but Bill Elliott (who finished 12th) implicated the devil. "I just don't know what possessed some of those people," he said. By being ahead of it all, Ricky Rudd got to possess $55,000 for the victory.