After waiting more than four hours for the rain to stop and the track to dry, NASCAR’s drivers gave their patient fans a treat Saturday with one of the cleanest and fastest Winston Cup races ever in the second Brickyard 400.
Seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt averaged 155.218 m.p.h. in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo and led the final 28 of 160 laps at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win $565,600, second-richest purse in NASCAR history.
The margin of victory was 0.37 seconds.
“I still haven’t won the Daytona 500, but this is the next to it,” Earnhardt said after barely beating Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett in a three-car drag race to the finish. “The Brickyard is the next thing to Daytona, and I’m glad I’m the second man to win it, if I couldn’t be the first.”
Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth, won a record $613,000 in last year’s inaugural Brickyard race. Earnhardt was fifth last year.
After a Chevrolet finished in front, four Fords--driven by Wallace, Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Mark Martin--came next. Elliott led the most laps, 47, with 38 of the 41 starters still running at the finish.
Probably fewer than half the 300,000 ticket holders were on the grounds when the cars were called to the starting line after 4 p.m., local time--the race was scheduled to start at 12:15--but before the race was far along, most of them showed up. After having sat and watched service trucks circle the track most of the day, trying to dry the surface, the fans were rewarded with a fast-paced, competitive race that had 17 lead changes among 11 drivers.
Only one caution flag, 133 laps into the race, slowed the pace.
When Jeff Burton hit the second-turn wall after tangling with Earnhardt, it brought out the lone caution flag. Race leader John Andretti pitted and Earnhardt assumed the lead, but his winning move came several laps earlier when he beat Wallace out of the pits on a green-flag stop.
“It was that last pit stop that gave us track position,” Earnhardt said, “and the way we were all running, that was real important. Once I got to the front, I had real good sailing.”
Earnhardt received a break coming out of the pits. When Joe Nemechek and Bobby Labonte banged fenders on pit row and Wallace had to brake to avoid hitting them, it let Earnhardt get away.
Two laps later, Burton was preparing to pit when he crowded Earnhardt and wound up spinning into the wall after their cars made contact. Once again, Wallace had to hit the brakes to avoid Burton while Earnhardt sped on.
“It got awful close,” Wallace said. “Earnhardt and the eight car [Burton] got together and the eight car started sliding around and I didn’t know what it was going to do. I almost had to stop. After that, track position was everything, and Dale had it.
“I really wanted to win for Team Penske, especially after all they went through here in May [when Penske drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500]. I wanted to come in and say [to Roger Penske], ‘Boss, I won this thing for you.’ ”
Burton, last year’s rookie of the year, said he lost the mirror on his Ford earlier and didn’t see Earnhardt coming up from behind.
Earnhardt, 44, was unusually philosophical after winning.
“To win a race here and be in the same sort of group with an Indy 500 winner or a Brickyard winner is pretty impressive to me,” Earnhardt said. “I’m honored to be there with them. This is a special place, and to win here is special.
“Some day we may win the Daytona 500. I’m looking forward to going there next year, and sure, I’m hoping to win. But right now I’m tied [with Gordon] for the most wins at the Brickyard. And that gives me a good feeling.”
The victory was Earnhardt’s 66th in 499 starts, but 18 of his losses have been in the Daytona 500, where he has often been the favorite but never the winner.
“The way NASCAR and the Indianapolis people managed to salvage the race, it was a miracle,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think anyone in the place really thought we’d run today.”
Gordon’s sixth-place finish enabled him to maintain his Winston Cup points lead and collect a $100,000 bonus as the leader after two-thirds of the season. He has 2,860 points to 2,778 for Sterling Marlin, who was seventh. Earnhardt is third with 2,739.