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Battery Bunch Tames the Lady
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Rain may have shortened the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington, but Bobby Labonte's Crew shortened his time on pit road during what was to be the last caution of the race. The unbelievable 14.2-second stop for tires and gas by the Battery Bunch put the number 18 Interstate Battery Pontiac back on the track in first place. This came during a caution originally for Jerry Nadeau, who's engine erupted on lap 320. The pit stop proved to be a race winner for the 18 car when NASCAR red flagged the race and eventually called it due to heavy rain and darkness.
Bobby Labonte would later say that he knew what got him to victory lane, "We were not the fastest car out there, the pit crew won this race."
On an overcast day in South Carolina, Jeremy Mayfield led the field to the green flag with Johnny Benson on the outside poll. Mayfield opened it up from there and not too long after, the skies would open up. Heavy rain would cause NASCAR to red flag the race for a little more than 2 hours.
When the race finally resumed, Mayfield picked up where he left off. Mayfield dominated the race until lap118 when Jeremy earned his Darlington stripe. Dave Marcis would make contact with the right rear of Mayfield's Ford and turn the number 12 Mobil Ford directly into the outside retaining wall. "It's been our case all year. I guess I came up on Dave Marcis. I followed him two or three laps and was clearly faster than him, I guess I came up into him and got into the wall." Mayfield led 104 laps of the 118 hat he ran before retiring from the race. After the incident Mayfield came on the radio and told his crew, "This was the most perfect car I have ever driven at Darlington." With Mayfield out of the race and rain looming in the area, it now became a race to half way with Mark Martin out front.
On lap 132 the first of the green flag pit stops would begin. When they were complete a rainbow appeared at Darlington Speedway, not in the sky, but on the track. Jeff Gordon's number 24 DuPont Chevrolet had emerged as the race leader. Gordon, who has been dominant at Darlington in the past, was looking for his first top 20 in 4 races.
Mark Martin would soon prove to be a man on mission. He would surpass second place Jeff Burton and set his sights on race leader Jeff Gordon. Martin wouldn't "follow the rainbow" for long as he quickly caught and dispensed of Gordon on lap 167. Martin would pull away to a 1-second lead. Gordon, who had pitted just before the first round of green flag pit stops was suffering from worn rubber. Mark Martin was just about to put a lap on Rusty Wallace when Geoffrey Bodine lost control of the number 60 Power Team Chevy and hit the turn 2 wall bringing out the 5th caution of the day. The leaders came to pit road on lap 174 for 4 tires and fuel. Dale Earnhardt would win the race off of pit road followed by Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and Mark Martin. As Earnhardt was exiting the pits, car owner Richard Childress came across the radio and congratulated the number 3 crew for getting their driver out first with the radar showing thunderstorms close to the track. With only a handful of laps to half way and a complete race, things were about to get good.
When the green flag dropped on lap 179, it did not take Dale Jarrett long to claim the lead and collect 5 bonus points. But everyone knows that Earnhardt does not like to follow and soon after the 88 car went around him Earnhardt would retake the lead bringing Gordon with him. With 2 laps from half way and lightning reported just past turns 3 and 4, Earnhardt was driving the tires off the number 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. This became obvious when Gordon would catch Earnhardt. But even with Earnhardt's tires showing fatigue, Gordon still could not take the lead away from the 3 car. In fact, Gordon would loose the second spot to Dale Jarrett.
NASCAR reported rain and lightning in the area and on lap 207 the caution flew once again due to rain. Would this be another win for Earnhardt Sr. at Darlington? The rain was light but the airwaves were heavy with discussions between Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt on whether or not to pit. The other teams behind the 3 car and 88 car were waiting to see what the 2 leaders were going to do. The field got tired of waiting as all of the leaders came down pit road……except Dale and Dale. The 3 and 88 decided to stay on the track and hope for a downpour. Childress radioed Earnhardt again, this time telling Dale that it was up to him, if he wanted to pit come on in, if not……. With NASCAR giving the one to go, Earnhardt and Jarrett both came down pit road and took 4 tires and gas.
The race went green on lap 227 with Ward Burton showing the way. Earnhardt would restart in 18th while Jarrett restarted in 20th. It didn't take the 2 of them long to find each other and start toward the front.
On lap 239, Jimmy Spencer would get together with Brett Bodine to bring out the 7th caution. "I guess Brett Bodine must need glasses or something. He's a dumb ass. He just drove off the corner there and I gave him plenty of room and he came back on the outside of me and caught me in the right-rear quarter panel and turned me in the wall. It was a stupid ass thing on his part. He took the Kmart car out of a top five and possibly a chance at winning the race, but what goes around comes around though." Brett Bodine viewed the incident slightly different than Spencer. "He got underneath me in the corner, I gave him the inside and he wanted the whole race track. He put me in the wall and that's stupid because he took himself out. He had a good race car and that was dumb on his part. He took both of us right out of any kind of a good finish at all. I mean, I couldn't go any higher because the wall is there."
The green flag would fly again on lap 245 with Bobby Labonte as the leader. Labonte who crashed his main car in practice on Friday and took a provisional to start the race, looked better than ever at a track that has not been good to him in the past. Jeff Burton would soon pass Labonte to take over the lead.
On lap 251 the 8th caution of the day (or evening in this case) flew when Dave Marcis and Matt Kenseth got together. Rusty Wallace and Mike Bliss would be collectted as well. The most dominant driver in past weeks suffered heavy front end damage and after many laps in the pits and a lot of cosmetic work, Rusty returned to the track to just ride around and collect as many points as possible.
On lap 303, another round of green flag pit stops took place when Ward Burton, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, and Bobby Labonte came down pit road for rubber and gas. This would prompt the rest of the field to follow. When the stops were complete, Ward Burton would emerge once again as the leader. With Brother Jeff in second, Ward Burton who won the spring race at Darlington looked poised to win the 3rd race of his career.
On lap 320, caution number 9 came out when Jerry Nadeu's engine erupted. All the leaders decided to pit and take on 4 tires and gas. Bobby Labonte's crew rattled off a 14.2-second stop and put him back on the track first. Jeff Burton would follow in 2nd with Earnhardt and Gordon (who almost collided) coming out in 3rd and 4th. Ward Burton who had been very strong later in the race, came out in 6th due to a slow stop.
With the cars lined up behind the pace car and ready to resume racing, the rain started to fall. NASCAR soon red flagged and eventually called the race due to heavy rain and impending darkness on lap 328.
The Battery Bunch along with Bobby Labonte had proven you do not always have to be the fastest car on the track to win a NASCAR race……..what do you know, races really can be won in the pits.
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Photos courtesy Ford
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