By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was a common sight to see the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises battling it out for the win, but in the following decades, both teams found themselves in a slump.
All of that changed when the NASCAR Cup Series rolled into Bristol in March 2001 with Elliott Sadler and John Andretti driving the famous No. 21 and No. 43 cars for the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises, respectively.
As the Food City 500 played out, several drivers took their turns at the front of the field, including Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Andretti, Steve Park, and others, but it would be a bold strategy call that would wind up being the winning move.
Pat Tryson, who was the crew chief for Sadler and the No. 21 car, called his driver to pit road with 170 laps to go, with the plan of trying to stretch both fuel and tires the remaining distance of the race and deliver the Wood Brothers their first win at the high-banked half-mile.
A punctured tire forced leader Kevin Harvick to pit with 70 laps remaining, allowing Sadler to assume the lead for the first time in the race. Despite his older tires, the Emporia, Virginia native was able to keep a steady pace at the front of the field.
With the laps winding down, John Andretti moved into second-place, setting up a battle between the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises down the stretch.
Though Andretti had an advantage with fresher tires, Sadler would not be deterred, keeping the No. 43 car at bay over the closing laps, crossing the line to score his first career win by a 0.426 second margin of victory.
“Track position was really important,” Tryson said of his winning pit call. “We had a really good car on long runs all day. We could just never get the track position, but the Motorcraft Quality Parts car was splendid all day and Elliott did an awesome job there at the end saving tires and saving it for the end. So happy for Eddie and Len and Glen (Wood) and everybody, it was awesome.”
“It means more than anything in the world,” Sadler said of the win. “It’s hard to win these Winston Cup races, even finish in the top-10. Pat Tryson made a good call to stay out. We had older tires than everybody else, but we had a pretty good car. I just want to thank everybody at Motorcraft Quality Parts, Ford, Air Force for really believing in us and seeing something in us that we didn’t see.”
Sadler noted in Victory Lane that he thought he had a tire going down late in the race after contact with Kevin Harvick, but it turned out to just be the toe that was knocked out.
“I bumped with Harvick and thought I messed up my right-front. I just probably knocked the toe out a little bit. It was good enough to win boys! We’re in Victory Lane at Bristol…We’re going to The Winston at Charlotte. We’re going to win that one too!”
Following Sadler and Andretti across the line would be Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Gordon, and Ward Burton rounding out the top-five finishers. Tony Stewart looked to be in position for a top-five as well, but contact between him and Gordon on the final lap sent Stewart spinning to an eventual 25th place result.
In true Tony Stewart fashion, he did not let the contact go without a response of his own, spinning Gordon on pit road after the race. The retaliation earned Stewart a $10,000 fine for his antics.