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Keller escapes big wreck

By Times wires and staff report
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A spectacular 29-car crash on Lap 14 reduced Saturday's Aaron's 312 Busch Grand National race to something resembling a midweek test session at Talladega Superspeedway.

Three cars finished on the lead lap.

Jason Keller beat Stacy Compton by .163 seconds, with Tim Fedewa a distant third on the 2.66-mile track. Of the 43 cars that started, 21 were running at the finish.

The race was red-flagged for 40 minutes.

"I'm sure it was pretty boring out there for the spectators," said Keller, driver of the No. 57 Ford, who picked up his second win and fifth top five in the season's eighth race. "A three-car pack and not a whole lot of cars on the racetrack, that's really different."

No one was seriously hurt in the wreck that claimed 16 cars and left 13 more with at least some damage. The only injury: Mike Harmon got two stitches in his tongue.

Coming off Turn 2, Kenny Wallace pinched rookie Scott Riggs' No. 10 Ford up the track. Riggs got out of the gas and was hit from behind by rookie Shane Hmeil's No. 47 Pontiac, triggering the type of unavoidable multicar pileup drivers dread at restrictor-plate races.

Riggs veered sharply down the track into the passenger side of rookie Johnny Sauter's No. 2 Chevrolet, which flipped, skidded on its roof, flipped and was struck again before coming to a stop. Cars ricocheted in every direction, blocking the track.

Winston Cup regular Michael Waltrip tried to squeeze through in the No. 99 Chevrolet, but said it was raining cars: "I expected the hole to close sooner or later, but I didn't expect it to close from above."

LONG DAY: Fedewa, a BGN veteran, expected to run about 20 laps in Mike Wallace's backup car, pick up a check and head home. After the wreck, he decided to finish though the car was not properly ventilated: "Not one air hose, not one air duct, nothing," said Fedewa, who won $31,290. "The red flag killed me; I was just sitting there baking."

GOING BACKWARD: Three Winston Cup drivers crashed in practice and will start from the rear of the field in backup cars for today's Aaron's 499. In separate incidents, the Chevrolets of Steve Park and Mike Wallace ran over debris, cut tires and hit the wall. Wallace spun, collecting Andy Petree Racing teammate Bobby Hamilton, the defending race winner.

BLOCK PARTY: Drivers say the aerodynamic package for restrictor-plate racing forces them to block faster cars for fear of falling to the rear of the pack.

Such tactics caused two wrecks in the season-opening Daytona 500.

"The way I approached things in the 1980s was if a man was faster, let him go," said veteran Bill Elliott, who set NASCAR's speed record with a 1987 qualifying lap of 212.809 mph at Talladega. "I'd go home and make my stuff faster and come back and outrun him. Now, the cars are so equal, nobody has that luxury anymore."

FAST TIMES: Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton was fastest in the first practice at 194.046 mph; Mike Skinner led the final session at 192.826.

PIT STOPS: Jimmy Spencer's last victory was at Talladega in 1994. ... Rusty Wallace has never won and has just six top-five finishes in 57 restrictor-plate races. Ricky Rudd also is 0-for-57 since plates were introduced in 1988.

FIRESTONE 225: Roger Penske's drivers swept the front row for the first IRL race at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway, the track he built. Gil de Ferran earned the pole and Helio Castroneves qualified second.

De Ferran turned a lap at 172.778 mph; Castroneves topped out at 172.587 and Jacques Lazier (171.977) starts third in today's race. Richie Hearn, subbing for the injured Eliseo Salazar in A.J. Foyt's car, was 22nd. Penske built the track in 1987 and operated it for more than a decade before selling it.

-- JOANNE KORTH, TIMES WIRES

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