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Hamilton at the top of well-behaved class

No diving to the apron allowed, no wrecks; in fact, no caution flags. This was no average Talladega 500.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- When one of NASCAR's most powerful men stood and delivered a speech Sunday morning, his audience sat captivated.

"When Mike Helton steps up," Bobby Hamilton said, "it's pretty serious."

Helton, NASCAR's president, spoke to Winston Cup drivers before the Talladega 500 about a yellow line around the bottom of the 2.66-mile track.

For safety's sake, he warned, anybody who drove beneath it would face a penalty.

Driver Michael Waltrip then got up and addressed his peers.

"I promise, I give you my word, that I'll take care of y'all if y'all take care of me," Waltrip said. "Let's be safe out there."

The ensuing silence explained what later occurred on the track.

The first restrictor-plate race since Dale Earnhardt's death in February at Daytona ended without the feared multicar pileup, without caution flags and with Hamilton celebrating in Victory Lane.

It was the third-quickest 500-mile race in NASCAR history, the second caution-free event at Talladega and a complete relief to drivers who came into the weekend worried about their safety.

"We're all rolling cars out of here, and we all get to go home tonight," said Tony Stewart, who finished second. "That probably means more to us than anything right now."

The same aerodynamic rules used Sunday were in place when 19 cars crashed at one time and when Earnhardt hit the Turn 4 wall and died on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

While the 37 lead changes in the Talladega 500 didn't come close to the 49 the last time the Winston Cup series raced here in October, the event's 26 different leaders tied a NASCAR record set here in 1986.

"I think we needed to know ourselves that we can do this and not wreck going straight," Hamilton said. "This proves it today."

The driver of the No. 55 Chevrolet used an aerodynamic push from his teammate, Joe Nemechek, to get past Stewart two laps from the finish to win his fourth career race by 0.163 seconds.

It was his first since joining Andy Petree Racing this season. It also was Petree's first Winston Cup victory as a car owner. "I'm not sure that we could have won the race if Joe hadn't helped us up through," Hamilton said.

Stewart, who won a series-best six races last season but is winless this year, took the lead from Sterling Marlin 16 laps from the finish.

But Hamilton, seventh with 10 laps to go, worked his way to the front by Lap 187.

"About halfway through the race we thought, 'Let's go up to the front,' and we were able to go up there and lead," he said. "So I put (that knowledge) in my glove compartment and waited until there were 15 laps to go, and we took off."

Having finished no better than 14th in 18 previous races at Talladega and with Nemechek drafting behind him, Hamilton passed Stewart and Kurt Busch, second at the time, in the tri-oval.

"I was surprised we stayed in front (that long) to be honest," Stewart said. "I really didn't think we could lead."

But nearly everybody did, and did so safely.

"The drivers deserve a gold medal," said Mark Martin, who finished fourth. "The job they did was incredible."

Others were not as complimentary of the three- and sometimes four-wide racing displayed throughout.

"When it comes down to 20, 30 laps to go, there's people hacking, chopping each other and it's habit," said Marlin, who led a race-best 51 laps but finished 23rd. "It's miraculous we didn't have a big wreck." Added Matt Kenseth: "It was good nobody got hurt, but other than that, for me, it's not much of a race. It's a good race for the fans to watch, but we're not really racing out there. We're just kind of riding around."

The 26 drivers who finished on the lead lap were a Winston Cup record. Among them was Dale Jarrett, who remained atop the Winston Cup points standings with an 18th-place finish.

More important was the relief felt by everyone after a caution-free days.

"I think everybody kind of went into this knowing we all had to take care of each other," Stewart said. "And everybody did a real good job with that. I think we produced a fairly good race today."

* * *

UP NEXT: NAPA Auto Parts 500, 2 p.m. Sunday, Fontana, Calif. TV: Ch. 13.

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