With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heading to the Lone Star State this weekend, it is time for another edition of Throwback Thursday Theater, and in this week’s edition we’ll take a look back at the race that started it all at Texas Motor Speedway, the 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 that took place on April 6, 1997.
Before the race even started, there were issues with the opening of the track. For the track to find its way onto the NASCAR Cup schedule, another track would have to give up one of their dates to make way for Texas. That track happened to be North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina, which was bought in 1996 by Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owned Texas, and Bob Bahre, who owned New Hampshire Motor Speedway at the time. The spring date for North Wilkesboro was then given to Texas so they could have a date on the schedule, which rubbed many NASCAR purists the wrong way.
Fast forward to the following year and the $120 million facility was ready to host its first Cup Series race. Mother Nature brought rain to the area during the weekend, which washed out qualifying. In accordance with the rule book, the field was set by points, with Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon leading the field to green.
Once the race was underway, the carnage started almost immediately with a 13 car wreck in turn one of lap one caused by Darrell Waltrip and Johnny Benson getting together mid-pack and causing the first of many cautions on the day.
The field went back to green, but it wasn’t long until turn one became calamity corner once again. This time, it was a three car accident involving Bobby Hillin, Derrike Cope, and Greg Sacks.
For the next 140 or so laps after the second caution of the day, it seemed that the field had calmed down a bit after the early race action and it looked as if Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett would be the cars to beat for the rest of the day with Gordon leading 69 laps to Jarrett’s 40. There were two more cautions during that period for a single car spin involving Jimmy Spencer, who was spun by Gordon as Spencer was close to being lapped, and the other caution for the blown engine of the No. 6 car of Mark Martin.
While Gordon was strong in the early going, his chances for a win vanished on lap 163 in a nine car accident that took place on the frontstretch. There were actually two separate accidents that caused the caution. The first occurred when Rusty Wallace lost control off of turn four and got into the wall, causing Brett Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Mike Skinner and others to spin behind him. The second part of the accident happened when Ernie Irvan was attempting to beat Terry Labonte, the leader at the time back to the start/finish line to get his lap back and ran right into the back of the slowed car of Greg Sacks. With the track blocked ahead of him, Gordon had nowhere to go and ran right into Irvan, causing severe damage to his No. 24 machine and ending his day.
The field went back to green on lap 175 with Labonte still in the lead and only 10 cars on the lead lap, leaving drivers like Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt a lap down and having to race their way back onto the lead lap. Both Elliott and Earnhardt were able to get by Labonte after the restart, but with the seventh caution of the day flying on lap 177 for the No. 30 of Benson spinning for a second time, Earnhardt had to drive like his life depended on it to hold off Labonte, who was trying to put him back one lap down. Earnhardt managed to stay ahead of Labonte, while Elliott was passed again and knocked back off of the lead lap.
With Earnhardt back on the lead lap, his crew chief at the time, Larry McReynolds, was highly animated on the radio as Earnhardt and Labonte raced back to the line. McReynolds could be overheard coaching his driver back around, saying: “C’mon! Yes! Hell yes!”
After that caution and the seventh caution of the day for oil on the track that was on lap 184, there was another long green flag run from lap 188 to lap 250. During that part of the race, the lead remained in the possession of Labonte for nearly the entire duration, only being surpassed by Todd Bodine, Sterling Marlin, and Jeff Burton for one to two laps each between lap 234 and 238. Labonte moved back to the front on lap 239 and led until the next caution on lap 251 for a Steve Grissom spin in turn two.
To that point in the race, it looked as if Texas native Labonte would be the man to beat for a win at his home track, but other drivers had a different plan. On the restart, Ricky Rudd was able to take the lead away from Labonte and began pulling away, but more carnage broke out on the backstretch a lap later to bring out the ninth caution of the day.
Johnny Benson, who had been involved in two spins already in the race, but was running up near the front on lap 259, lost control off of Turn 2 and spun down the backstretch directly in front of the oncoming car of Joe Nemechek, causing severe damage to the front ends of both cars and ending the race for both drivers.
On the ensuing restart, Rudd gave up the lead to Bodine, but five laps later, he was replaced at the top of the board by Burton after the two got together off of turn two, sending Bodine spinning into the wall to bring out the 10th and final caution of the day. Also involved in that wreck was Lake Speed, who was carrying sponsorship from Ace Hardware on his No. 9 machine for a made-for-TV movie, Steel Chariots, which was being filmed at the track that day.
From that point on, it was Burton’s race to lose as he pulled away from the field and led the final 53 laps to score his first of many Cup Series wins. The win was also the first win for Roush Racing by someone other than Mark Martin.
In Victory Lane after the race, Burton was all smiles, and when asked how his first win felt, he said: “Hell, I don’t know. It feels pretty good. This team has been working really hard and we’ve lost more than we’ve won, that’s for sure. We’ve given a few away, but we didn’t give this one away.”
Burton had been winless in his first three full-time seasons in the Cup Series, but the win in Texas sparked two additional wins in 1997 and before his retirement at the end of the 2014 season, Burton won 21 total Cup Series races.
For Texas Motor Speedway, the popularity of the track and the success of the 1997 event led to NASCAR’s return for years to come, eventually adding a second date in 2005 and marking their 20th year of providing great racing this season.
Photo: Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway