Photo: Sherryl Creekmore/NASCAR

Throwback Thursday Theater: Martinsville Bites Back and Rusty’s Last Ride

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

April 18, 2004 – The day Martinsville Speedway bit back, derailing the chances of one future NASCAR Hall of Famer going to Victory Lane, and paving the way for another to break a years long winless streak and capture the final win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

For much of the first half of the Advance Auto Parts 500, it looked as if defending race winner Jeff Gordon was going to be the driver to beat down the stretch, as the four-time Cup Series champion had led 180 of the first 272 laps after starting on pole.

Despite losing the lead during a round of pit stops under caution, Gordon kept the lead in sight as he ran second behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, things took a turn for the worse for Gordon just 10 laps later when the concrete in Turn 2 began coming apart, sending a large chuck of the material right into the path of Gordon’s car, causing significant damage to the front end of his Chevrolet.

The resulting hole in the track, which measured approximately 1 foot by 1 foot and was close to two feet deep, brought out the red flag while it and two other smaller holes were repaired.

While waiting out the 77-minute-long red flag, Gordon was only left to wonder about the day that could have been had the track stayed intact.

“I’m laughing about it now, but I’m not happy about this,” Gordon said. “We worked so hard to get that track position. We’ve got such an awesome race car. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can do it, but man, is it going to be a lot of hard work…They’ve got a pretty serious problem over there and unfortunately, I hit it. I mean, it could have been worse. It could have went underneath the car. Luckily, it hit with the right-front.

Though it was going to be an uphill battle, Gordon didn’t give up hope that he and his No. 24 team could get back in the fight and still compete for the race win once his car was repaired.

“Man, what an awesome day we were having. Great race car, great pit stops. That thing is just such a dream to drive. Wow, it just goes everywhere I want it to. I was looking forward to racing Junior there. We’re not going to give up on them yet. We’re going to fight until this thing is over and hopefully, we’ll get back in Victory Lane again for a third time here at Martinsville.”

Several pit stops later, Gordon’s team was able to get the repairs completed on his Chevrolet, but by then he would be well down the running order, dropping as low as 21st on the leaderboard.

Meanwhile, back up at the front of the field, Earnhardt Jr. had taken over Gordon’s position as the man to beat, leading up until lap 410 when handling issues caused him to give up the lead to Jimmie Johnson with 90 laps to go.

Johnson led the next 45 laps before Rusty Wallace, who had been biding his time in the top-five for much of the race, passed him for the top spot just prior to the final caution flag of the day on lap 457.

On the subsequent restart, Wallace got the jump on the rest of the contenders, leading the remainder of the race and beating Bobby Labonte to the finish by .538 seconds to claim the 55th and final win of his Cup Series career.

Earnhardt finished third behind Wallace and Labonte, taking over the points lead in the process, with Johnson finishing fourth and Wallace’s Penske teammate Ryan Newman rounding out the top-five. Despite the hardships on the day, Jeff Gordon was able to recover to finish sixth.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wallace said in Victory Lane. “We’ve got such good cars. Larry Carter, we hired him and got the crews straightened out and man, the hot rod started rocking and rolling again. It feels good to win again, it really does.

“I had a great day today. Man, what can I say? Finally, back in the winner’s circle. We’ve got a great car. We’ve had a second, a fifth, and a win. We’re on track and we’re going to win this damn championship. I’m ready for it, man. It’s exciting.”

Wallace would hang up the helmet for good at the end of the 2005 season, but that April afternoon in southern Virginia was the last time that he would be able to emerge from the cockpit of his car as a winner in the NASCAR Cup Series.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.