Good Ol' Boys - NASCAR
finally breaks 'The Rock'
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Dale Jarrett led only once in the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400, but luckily for him, once he had the lead he never relinquished it, winning for the first time in his career at Rockingham. Taking the lead with the help of some magical work by his pit crew, Jarrett moved from third to first during a late race pit stop and was never challenged for the lead after the green flag dropped. After finishing in second place at North Carolina Speedway more times than he cares to remember, Jarrett has finally broken "The Rock". Jeff Gordon finished in second place, while Jarrett's teammate Ricky Rudd finished in third place. Jeff Burton would finish and Rusty Wallace would round out the top five.
On Friday, Jeremy Mayfield claimed yet another Bud Pole for Robert Penske with a speed of 157.342 MPH. Of the 31 races run so far, Penske teammates Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield have won a combined 12 Bud Poles, more than 38% of them in the Winston Cup series.
From the start of the race, Mayfield showed that Friday's qualifying wasn't a fluke as he powered his Taurus around the 1.017-mile North Carolina Speedway, but instead of sporting the familiar Pegasus on the hood; Mayfield had Major League Baseball as his primary sponsor for the event. If last night's extra inning thriller in the subway series opener was a precursor of things to come than this series ought to be a great one. Mayfield did his best to keep his Ford at the front, leading a number of times for a total of 169 laps.
While the race didn't have nearly as many lead changes as last week at Talladega, Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd all took turns at the front in the early stages of the race. As always, tires were trouble at Rockingham. The fastest cars would usually run a lower groove until their tires started to wear, then their racing line would drift up to the wall as their tires went away. Unfortunately, sometimes the tires went away a little too much and the driver would wind up in the wall, unable to keep their car in the groove.
The race was slowed nine times for caution periods. Michael Waltrip brought out the caution on three occasions, all for different problems. Early in the event it was a leaking oil line, then just past half way he slid up and hit the wall, then toward the end of the race the engine blew, so much for the thought that "the third time is the charm".
By far the scariest caution period occurred on lap 321 when a hellacious fire broke out in the pits. As Matt Kennseth was leaving his pit stall, the neck of the fuel filler fractured, spilling racing fuel into the pit stall and over the wall. As Kennseth left the pits the fumes igniting, creating a huge fire that engulfed the Kennseth pits. As the crewmembers scurried for cover, and others jumped down from the war wagon, the fire personnel attacked the flames with their own fury. Although seeming like an eternity, the fire fighters had the flames under control in about 20 seconds. Two of Kennseth's crewmembers were injured; the most seriously hurt was the gas man who was transferred to a local hospital with 2nd degree burns on his face and neck.
When the pits were finally cleared of emergency personnel and the pits had opened, one thing became lost in all the confusion. The pit fire had occurred in the middle of a green flag pit cycle, meaning many drivers had lost a lap due to the ensuing yellow flag. One of them was point's leader Bobby Labonte. Labonte was now in 20th position, one lap down from the leaders, and Dale Earnhardt. If there was a golden opportunity to make up points, then this was it.
When the race resumed green flag racing on lap 331, Jeff Burton led the parade, but in less than three laps Rusty Wallace had wrestled the lead away and was pulling away. But while one Penske car was moving forward, the other (Mayfield) was falling behind. A bad battery would force Mayfield to pit, and he would lose six laps while the crew feverishly worked to replace it.
Wallace was still leading when you guessed it, Michael Waltrip, brought out the final caution period of the day. Waltrip had lost his engine and was spreading a generous amount of fluids on the track, prompting the yellow. It was during this caution that Wallace would "lose" the race in the pits.
As Wallace's pit crew worked to change the tires, some of the lug nuts fell off the wheel, delaying the tire change. After entering the pits in first, Wallace would leave the pits in eight place, all but securing the win for Jarrett.
Dale Jarrett left the pits first and held on for the final 42 laps for the victory, beating Jeff Gordon by more than 2 seconds at the checkered flag. Jeff Gordon attempted to mount a challenge, but Jarrett had not won a race since Daytona and he wasn't about to give up with out a fight.
Today's victory at Rockingham was the first ever for Dale Jarrett. A fitting tribute to his father, Ned Jarrett, who's last Winston Cup race was at "The Rock", in October 1966.
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