The Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Raceway was a Saturday night special in every sense of the word. A caution period with only 20 laps remaining saw some drivers roll the dice and pit for tires while others stayed on the track, tucked behind the pace car, holding their position. What was left was a 15-lap feature event that saw Jeff Gordon jump to the front and hold off a hard charging Dale Earnhardt to claim him 52nd career victory by three quarters of a second.
To add even more excitement to the race, tonight's Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 was the fourth Winston No Bull 5 event scheduled for this season, and is the only No Bull race to be held on a short track. Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth were all eligible to claim the No Bull $1 million bonus and only needed to park their car in victory lane to do it. Unfortunately. The best the group could muster was a 2nd place by the elder Earnhardt.
Jeff Burton started from the point by setting a blistering Bud pole track record of 125.78 miles per hour on the .75-mile raceway. Burton was clearly dominant in the early and later stages of the race. Burton kept his Exide Batteries Ford fully charged and in front of Rusty Wallace for the first 89 laps, but then the short track master would flex his muscle and show the way until almost the halfway point. But on lap 175 the Penske power plant developed trouble and dropped a cylinder, quickly sending Rusty on a backward retreat.
Lurking behind Wallace in 2nd place and taking over the lead was Tony Stewart and the Home Depot Pontiac. Stewart had an absolutely awesome car on long runs, and while other cars faded, Stewart's car just got stronger and stronger. But the Rushville Rocket's Pontiac was just horrible on new tires and quickly faded on restarts.
The fifth of seven caution periods was brought out on lap 185 when Brett Bodine tangled with Jimmy Spencer for the second week in a row. Unfortunately for Dave Blaney, he was caught in the middle and was collected by a spinning Spencer; any hopes for a good finish by Blaney were brought to an abrupt end.
"He caused that one last week and he deliberately hit me again", Spencer stated. "I guess NASCAR gotta's do something about it, cause I won't do nothing about it, you know."
Earlier cautions included nasty wrecks by Michael Waltrip and Joe Nemechek. Jeremy Mayfield continued his win or waste ways by bringing out a few caution periods with cut tires, malfunctioning brakes and a visit to the wall. In a bizarre accident, Mayfield had made a pit stop after blowing the right front tire. Leaving pit road he had a flaming brake pad fall off of the Pegasus and land in Ken Schrader's pit stall. When Schrader stopped for service during the ensuing caution, the racing fuel spilled on the red-hot brake pad and ignited, sending Schrader around the track with flames and smoke bellowing out of the M&M's sponsored machine, now I know how they get those brown ones.
Steve Park put the Penzoil Chevrolet in the lead just before the halfway point and would keep it there for the better part of the next 130 laps. It looked for a while that Park might once again have the opportunity to park the Chevy in Victory Lane, but on lap 330 Jeff Burton once again established himself as the car to beat as he wrestled the lead away.
It looked like Bobby Labonte was going to challenge for the lead when the sixth caution period flew with only 40 laps remaining. Quick work by Labonte's pit crew has the Interstate Batteries Pontiac in 2econd place and ready to make a run for the front, but Labonte's bad luck at Richmond would continue as a broken power steering pump forced him to pit again. Running the remainder of the race without power steering, Labonte would eventually finish in 15th place, one lap off the pace.
With 39 laps to go it was Jeff Burton in the lead with Jeff Gordon and Steve Park giving chase. It looked like Burton might be able to hold on until the checkers, but the final caution period of the evening flew when Casey Atwood and his Evernham owned Motorola Ford's engine expired setting up a 15 lap green flag shoot out. With only 12 cars on the lead lap, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and a few others decided to pit and try to make the charge to the front. Jeff Burton, Gordon and Park all stayed on the track hoping they would have enough rubber left to make it a race.
When the green flag fell for the final time it was Jeff Gordon pointing the nose of his Chevy Monte Carlo high and just powered around Burton. Once in front, Jeff stretched the lead and Burton couldn't muster a challenge. But further back came Earnhardt and Martin, moving to the front as though they were being pulled with a cable. It took Earnhardt a few laps to get around Park for third place, and if not for that, he may have had enough time to race Gordon for the victory. But instead he came up ¾ of a second too short and Gordon claimed the win.
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Photos courtesy Ford
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