1997 Miller 500 – Dover Downs International Speedway
For the first 55 races held at Dover from 1969 to 1997, the “Monster Mile” had been a 500-mile affair with attrition being the name of the game, but starting with the fall race in 1997 the race length was shortened to 400 miles, leaving one last 500 mile hurrah in June of that year that certainly did not disappoint.
Starting on pole, Bobby Labonte took command of the race for the first 30 laps before disaster struck courtesy of the front bumper of Kyle Petty’s No. 44 car that ran in second. Coming off of Turn 2 on lap 31, Petty and Labonte made contact, sending Labonte into the outside wall and ending any chance Labonte had at the win.
Once the initial caution was over with, the Miller 500 turned into typical Dover with five cautions over the next 300 laps, including a big wreck between Geoff Bodine, Dick Trickle, and Bobby Hillin on lap 241 that caused hard hits for Trickle’s No. 90 machine, sending his front end airborne for a second.
Through that portion of the race, it was a three man battle for the race lead, with the lead being swapped between Ernie Irvan, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett with Jarrett leading the lion’s share with his No. 88 car at the front for 245 of the first 450 laps.
It was at that point that things got very interesting for the three top cars. As Jarrett led on lap 451, John Andretti spun coming off of Turn 2, which in turn caused Kenny Wallace to spin. Jarrett and Gordon approached the area where Andretti and Wallace had spun and as Jarrett checked up for the accident, Gordon got into the back of Jarrett, causing damage to both cars.
The damage sent both cars to the pits and Gordon returned to the track in the lead, but was forced to the garage to repair his car as it needed a new radiator. With Gordon out, that left Jarrett and Irvan as the two big contenders to battle it out over the remainder of the race.
However, it was not to be for Jarrett or Irvan as disaster befell both cars over the final 50 laps. At lap 462, Jarrett looked to be in the catbird seat as he continued to lead, but it was at that point that his engine expired, sending him to the garage after leading 256 laps. Irvan assumed the lead as a result of Jarrett’s engine failure, but nine laps later, Irvan would have problems of his own. Heading into Turn 1 on lap 472, Irvan hit some oil left by Chad Little, which sent the No. 28 car spinning into the wall and making Irvan the fourth race leader to run into trouble that would end their day early.
With Irvan out of the picture, it was down to Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, and Jeff Burton to settle the race amongst themselves over the final 29 laps. The three drivers battled fiercely, but Rudd and Martin would pull away to battle for the win with five laps remaining.
Rudd held steadfast in the lead, but Martin was trying every trick in the book to try and get past him to score the victory. Though Martin got close enough to spin Rudd out and take the win for himself on several occasions, the two drivers raced cleanly and Rudd was able to hold off Martin down to the finish as he would score his first win of the 1997 season to continue his 15 year streak of at least one win each season.
“You know, we didn’t have the best car today, we had a top-five car and it was like ‘Man, they’re just trying to give us this race,’ said Rudd. “Dale was having problems and then the 24 and at the end with Ernie wrecking, I couldn’t believe everything happening to give us this race. When you get in a position like that, you‘ve got to be able to capitalize. I don’t like to see anybody have trouble, but it was nice to get a gift like that.”
“I’d like to thank Mark Martin,” Rudd continued. “He had every opportunity to spin me out and he didn’t. He got into me, but it was an honest shove.”
Martin also commented on the battle and the clean racing between the two at the end of the race, saying: “I couldn’t wreck him to win the thing. That’s stealing, and I don’t believe in stealing.”
“If I were in front, there wouldn’t be nobody getting around me either. That’s the way it’s supposed to go down,” Martin said.