By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 22, 2001
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A number of drivers climbed from their mangled cars after Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and made a beeline for the NASCAR trailer.
A 15-car pileup on the last lap took several front-runners out of the race, including Bobby Labonte, who led with one lap to go. Drivers knew it was coming.
"I was listening to the radio in the ambulance on the way to the care center and the commentators said how exciting a race it was," said Labonte, whose No. 18 Pontiac flipped onto its roof and skidded down the backstretch. "I guess everybody got their money's worth. It doesn't matter about us."
No one was injured, but plenty of tempers flared.
Drivers say aerodynamic rules in place for restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona are conducive to multicar accidents because almost the entire field travels in a pack. For the final 25 laps, racing on the 2.66-mile track was three-wide, six rows deep at speeds in excess of 185 mph.
Labonte was fourth and Bobby Hamilton Sr. fifth in the No. 55 Chevrolet when contact between the two sent cars careening across the backstretch. The consensus was that little could have prevented the chain-reaction crash.
"A large rainstorm, an earthquake -- I don't know," said Labonte, who finished 22nd. Sterling Marlin, whose No. 40 Dodge finished 17th with heavy damage, was incensed: "It ain't the drivers; it's NASCAR. Every driver has been telling them in the NASCAR trailer that it's going to happen. They wanted it to happen."
Several veterans and former champions, crew chiefs and owners expressed their displeasure to officials after the race. After four races under the current rules, they were assured changes will be made.
"We don't like this any more than our drivers do," NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said. "Thus far, we've been unable to come up with a solution, but we are going to figure this out. ... I can assure you, we will figure this out so that we're not faced with this type of racing in Daytona."
TOO ROUGH: Rookie Kevin Harvick, penalized last week at Martinsville for spinning Hamilton out of the lead, bumped the back of Todd Bodine's No. 66 Ford on Lap96 to bring out the first of three cautions.
"I'm upset because it only takes one bonehead move to cause a wreck, and that's exactly what happened," said Bodine, whose car was totaled. "He didn't mean to do it, but he did it. Kevin's a good kid, but I don't know what we've got to do to calm him down."
Harvick finished 32nd.
NO HAPPY ENDING: Tony Stewart wrapped up a trying weekend with a surprising second place. First, he was forced by NASCAR's recent mandate to wear a head and neck restraint device against his will. Then, he qualified poorly. Sunday, Stewart rode at the back of the field to avoid trouble, charging to the front in the final 30 laps.
He inched his No. 20 Pontiac ahead of winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch in the final lap, but Earnhardt Jr. got a push from Jeff Burton to regain the lead.
"Are we happy with where we finished? Absolutely," Stewart said. "But I don't know what to say because there's so much frustration."
CLOSING IN: Jeff Gordon gained 61 points on Ricky Rudd and can clinch his fourth title by finishing 19th or better in the final five races.