By David Morgan, Associate Editor
This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway and in celebration of the 50th anniversary for both the track and Richard Childress Racing, the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt to the final win of his career will pace the field with Richard Childress behind the wheel.
With that in mind, this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater” will look back at the 2000 Winston 500 and the amazing comeback Earnhardt was able to make in the waning laps of the race to score his 76th career win.
In the intro to the race coverage on ESPN, Dr. Jerry Punch set the stage for what would be a dramatic 188 lap event on the massive 2.66 mile track in Alabama with these words:
“For over three decades, these five-lane wide straightaways and four story high banks have provided the setting for some of NASCAR’s most thrilling races and electrifying finishes. Historically, just the mere mention of the word Talladega has been enough to give the drivers chills and the fans thrills. So it is our pleasure to welcome you live to the world’s fastest stock car facility, Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama, for this, the 32nd renewal of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Winston 500.”
Heading into Talladega, Bobby Labonte held a commanding 252 point lead over Jeff Burton in the points standings, but one final major speed bump remained on Labonte’s run to the title – Talladega.
Steve Park would start on the pole for the race with Rusty Wallace alongside, but it would be rookie Dale Earnhardt, Jr. moving from eighth to the lead to lead the first of the 188 scheduled laps. The race would go green for the first 104 laps as there were 27 lead changes among 14 drivers early in the event, helped by the so-called “wicker bill” across the top of the roof of each car that would punch a bigger hole in the air and make passing and drafting easier on the high banks.
The two drivers who would lead the most in the ever changing lead in those first 104 laps would be Bill Elliott with 33 laps led and Dale Earnhardt with 26 laps led.
As the race continued on, only two other cautions broke out on lap 116 for debris and on lap 169 for a four-car spin entering the tri-oval.
Leading into that final caution, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had asserted themselves into the lead, with Gordon leading 12 of the 26 laps prior to the caution with Earnhardt, Jr. leading the other 14.
The field made their final pit stops during that caution with some taking fuel only, but the majority taking two tires. Gordon held the lead on the restart at lap 174, but it would be Earnhardt, Jr. quickly moving back to the front of the field with points leader Bobby Labonte in tow.
As the leaders began to jockey for the lead with just four laps remaining, Mike Skinner overtook Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the lead. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt who was marred back in traffic, 17th place to be exact, began to make his move toward the front of the field.
The leaders continued to jockey for position, even running four-wide and five-wide with three laps to go, but John Andretti and Mike Skinner would lead laps 185 and 186 respectively, but out of nowhere, thanks to a push from Kenny Wallace, Dale Earnhardt came right through the middle as the field hauled the mail through the tri-oval heading to the start/finish line with two laps to go.
With Earnhardt and Wallace commanding the outside line and Skinner and Earnhardt, Jr. on the inside line, the duo of Earnhardt and Wallace were able to power themselves into the lead as the field took the white flag.
Just as the field crossed the line to take the white flag, Earnhardt, Jr. made the move three-wide to try to get around Skinner but ran out of room on the apron as the field steamed toward Turn 1 and had to jump out of the gas and the rookie would be out of the running for the win, coming home in 14th.
Meanwhile, the fracas at the front of the field had allowed Earnhardt, Wallace, and Joe Nemechek to pull away from the rest of the field and the race would be decided among Earnhardt and the two Andy Petree owned cars.
Earnhardt was the master of Talladega and knew exactly how to work the draft to keep those two cars behind him as the three would cross the line 1-2-3 to give Earnhardt his 10th win at the track.
The action would not be over once the checkered flag flew as the “big one” finally broke out as the cars crossed the finish line, creating the biggest crash of the day after the race was over.
“It was wild. I didn’t have any thought that I’d have a chance of winning this race starting where I did on that restart, but we kept working our way and got on the outside. Kenny Wallace really worked hard with us and he did a good job. I don’t think we could have gotten back up there if it wasn’t for Kenny,” Earnhardt said.
“Once we got together, he stayed with me. He pushed me to the outside of those guys and I hated to beat Mike Skinner, but I had to beat him for a million!”