Better Safe Than Sorry
Caution prevailed in the first restrictor-plate race since Dale
A few minutes after Bobby Hamilton won Sunday's caution-free
Talladega 500, Derick Jennings, a crewman for Bobby Labonte, was
standing next to Labonte's Pontiac in the garage area and
watching as a pickup tried to maneuver past it. "Just don't hit
her, buddy," Jennings said with a grin to the truck's driver.
"She ain't got a mark on her."
Virtually the same could be said about the other 42 cars that
ran in Sunday's field, and seeing so many machines in pristine
condition led to sighs of relief from drivers and NASCAR
officials alike. Lest anyone forget what Talladega Superspeedway
is capable of, a billboard outside Birmingham advertises the
Wreck Room at the track's International Motor Sports Hall of
Fame, and some of the display of twisted metal inside that room
is fitting testimony to Talladega's hallmark: the big one.
Drivers were especially sensitive last week to the possibility
of a multicar crash at the 2.66-mile tri-oval because the
sport's most popular personality had died during the most recent
restrictor-plate race, the Daytona 500. (The Earnhardt Gallery
at the track's Hall of Fame is eerily located among the remains
in the Wreck Room.) "This is going to be a difficult weekend for
the families and the competitors," Ward Burton said two days
before the race. "We have all been dreading it since we left
Daytona. We have had several conversations with our children
about the potential for tragedy."
At the drivers' meeting on Sunday morning, Michael Waltrip, the
Daytona 500 champ and an employee of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.,
implored his fellow racers to be careful and patient, telling
them, "I promise, I will take care of y'all if y'all take care of
me." Waltrip suggested that the field hold back until about 20
laps (of 188) were left. Most drivers did, and the result was
plenty of nondaring passing--21 drivers led in the first 104
laps--and not much excitement. Mostly, the cars paraded around the
track in rows of three, clinging to the formation as rigidly as a
high school marching band. Hamilton described his early strategy
as, "Get the hell out of everybody's way to see how safe it's
going to be."
Added Mark Martin, "The drivers deserve a gold medal, but that's
not good racing. I just thank the Lord for a safe day. I think
the drivers who laid back made it possible. I don't think it
would have been possible with a 43-car pack."
With 27 laps to go, Tony Stewart took the lead from Sterling
Marlin and actually acted as though he wanted to keep it. He did
until Hamilton got around him as they took the white flag. That
late pass answered the question of whether a safe race and an
exciting finish at Talladega had to be mutually exclusive.
The race itself may have answered the question of who will
inherit Earnhardt's mantle as the man to beat in restrictor-plate
racing. It certainly isn't the 43-year-old Hamilton, who had
never finished better than ninth in 18 previous races at
Talladega. Nor is it the presumed heir, Dale Jarrett, who had
finished second in five of the last 12 Talladega races but came
in 18th on Sunday.
No, chances are the answer to that question is that nobody will
dominate as Earnhardt did. "What he taught, he taught to
everybody, unfortunately," says Stewart. "Nobody has a real
advantage anymore. Nobody knew everything that Earnhardt knew,
and nobody ever will."
Busch Fields Thinning
The Price Isn't Right
Here's proof that a racing series can come close to pricing
itself out of the market. For the seventh time in nine Busch
races this season, every driver who showed up made the field
last Saturday in Talladega. Only four drivers have been sent
home all year, compared with 94 who missed the first nine shows
last season. Two races have been run with fewer than the
standard 43 cars.
The reason is fairly simple. Thanks largely to new engine
regulations that increase horsepower but cost each team about
$500,000 to conform to, the series has become too expensive for
the cars' owners. A Busch car sponsor typically puts up $4
million to $5 million a year. (A primary Winston Cup sponsor pays
up to $15 million.) This year Andy Petree, who owns the Winston
Cup cars of Bobby Hamilton and Joe Nemechek, had a sponsor
approach him about running a car in the Busch series, which
Petree did last year. The bottom line, however, dissuaded Petree.
"It doesn't cost one thin dime less to build a Busch car [than it
does a Winston Cup car]," says Petree. "The tires cost exactly
the same, and when you pull into that hotel [on race week], it
costs exactly the same. Yet the sponsorship levels are nearly one
fourth of Winston Cup. That makes it tough, especially because
they increased the expense side with the motors. That was a
backbreaker for me."
For car owners who want to develop drivers in a more
cost-efficient setting, former Winston Cup owner Michael
Kranefuss has a possible solution: He put Shawna Robinson, who
drove 52 Busch races in the early '90s, in an ARCA car (annual
budget: $1 million) last year. He'll get a chance to see how
well his plan plays out this weekend at the California Speedway,
where Robinson will try to become the first woman to qualify for
a Winston Cup race in 12 years. One thing he can be sure of:
More than 43 cars will be trying to get into that show.
COLOR PHOTO: ORLIN WAGNER/AP After grabbing the lead with two laps to go, Hamilton took the final turn with Stewart and Co. in tow.