By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
After the tragedy of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returned to the track at Dover International Speedway a week and a half later for the first race back, with teams, drivers, and fans all banding together to help the nation heal.
With American flags flying up and down pit road, in the grandstands, and showing on various cars and driver’s helmets, the sport got back to business with the running of the MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400, which is the focus of this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater.”
Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett led the field to green, with both drivers leading a lap in the first two laps of the race. On the silent lap 3 in memory of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and those affected by the 9/11 attacks, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. powered into the race lead, which would be a familiar sight for the remainder of the day.
Through the first 168 laps of the race, Earnhardt would lead 143 of them, with Ricky Craven leading 15 laps and Ricky Rudd leading eight laps. Those first 168 laps would also include six caution periods, with nine different drivers finding trouble on the treacherous high banks of Dover.
Under the sixth caution, the lead would swap from Earnhardt to Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart before Earnhardt reassumed the lead at lap 173 for another 11 circuits at the front of the field. However, Earnhardt’s reign up front was challenged by Rudd on lap 184 as Rudd would take over in the lead. Rudd would lead the next 161 laps before running into trouble himself.
As Rudd went to put Rusty Wallace a lap down a few laps prior to his trouble, the two made contact and Wallace didn’t take that too kindly. With Rudd in his sights in Turn 4 on lap 345, Wallace made contact with Rudd, sending him for a spin out of the lead and bringing out the 10th caution of the day.
With Rudd getting spun from the lead, Dale Jarrett was the next to assume the point, which he held for the next 17 laps.
While Jarrett looked to have a commanding hold on the lead, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was dominant for the first half of the race, had something to say about who would be the driver to win the race. With 39 laps to go, Earnhardt made his move, powering past Jarrett and pulling away in the lead. Earnhardt’s lead appeared to be insurmountable, but a caution with 12 laps to go brought everyone back to Earnhardt’s rear bumper to give them one more shot at the lead and the win.
The caution with 12 laps to go came as a result of Jarrett fighting an ill-handling car and getting tagged by Tony Stewart to send Jarrett’s No. 88 car for a spin down the backstretch.
On the final restart, Jerry Nadeau tried to give Earnhardt a run for his money, but the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet was just too strong, as Earnhardt pulled away to win by a 1.576 second margin. The win was the second of the season for Earnhardt and his first win at Dover.
Following Earnhardt and Nadeau to the line to round out the top-10 was Rudd, Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Joe Nemechek, Sterling Marlin, Casey Atwood, and Bobby Hamilton.
To celebrate his win and honor America, Earnhardt and his crew gathered at the pit road wall separating the track from pit road as a crew member handed Earnhardt an American flag, which Earnhardt spun around to perform a polish victory lap with the stars and stripes flying proudly from his Chevrolet.
Once he pulled into victory lane, the celebrations continued as Earnhardt dove from the roof of his car into the arms of his crew members with a Budweiser in hand and a grin from ear to ear.
“We had a good car yesterday and everybody was telling me that we had a good car and I just didn’t know. The car was sliding around a lot, but it was good when it counted. That was the last few laps and we were able to get by those guys and move on. It feels good to be back in a race car and I’m glad I could be the guy to win the race so I could carry the American flag around there. It made me feel good,” said Earnhardt.
While Earnhardt and his team were celebrating in victory lane, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace were having a discussion in the garage about the contact between the two that led to Wallace spinning Rudd out of the lead.
“Well, Rusty, I don’t know what was wrong with him. He was off the pace, something was wrong with him. I guess he needed a caution. I was lapping him and he decided to wreck the leader. I’ve never seen anything like it. I know he’s got the nickname ‘rubber head’ in the garage area. I never understood it, but I understand it now,” said Rudd. “It’s just a shame you’ve got to deal with nonsense like this. I used to have a lot of respect for that guy. I wouldn’t give him two cents right now.”
Obviously Wallace had a differing point of view on what happened in the incident and said as much in his post-race interview after his discussion with Rudd in the garage.
“My take on the incident, he was getting ready to lap me and as he lapped me, he ran into me on the back straightaway, and as I went down in the corner, I just stood in the throttle and tried to pass him on the outside. He slowed up a little bit and I got in the tail end of him, that’s my story,” said Wallace.
“His memory is pretty short. He rammed the crap out of me at Bristol, you know, and now he forgets about it. I named a guy ‘cone head’ a long time ago, I think I’m going to name that dude that. He’s got a hell of a problem out there, I ‘ll tell you.”
“He was hot because he was leading the race and he got spun. I’d be hot too, but he’s got to watch the way he drives. He’s a good driver and I respect him, but I didn’t respect him at Bristol and I didn’t respect him when he got ready to lap me and ran into me. I tell you what, I was going to go for it to try and hold my lap back. I didn’t run into the back of him and spin him out on purpose, I’ll tell you that, but I was going to give him hell.”