The Perfect Race

 by Doug Belliveau
March 14, 2001

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In 1991, many severe meteorological conditions combined to create the Perfect Storm off the coast of Massachusetts. Ten years later, the sequence of events on a semi-oval made of asphalt combined to create the Perfect Race outside of Atlanta, Georgia. But the results on this day were much more favorable than a decade ago.

At 12:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, 43 cars were lined up on pit road, yearning to start their engines and roar onto the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Four hours later, the fans at the track had witnessed what could be considered the Perfect Race. With Daytona only four short weeks prior, most fans were still in a state of emotional distress over the news of Dale Earnhardt's tragedy. Many did not know how NASCAR could continue with the loss of their hero. After the Perfect Race, everyone knew the answer to that question. NASCAR Winston Cup competition has not only continued on, but has treated its fans to the best racing in recent history.

Mark Martin's crew did everything they could, but they couldn't keep him in the race.

The Atlanta race had just about everything a fan could ever dream of. There was speed, strategy, failure, success, teamwork, redemption, disappointment, humor, and of course, a photo finish. And for a change, even the weather cooperated. As the race went along, the asphalt temperatures dropped, adding even more speed to the fastest non-restrictor plate track on the circuit.

In what resembled an episode of Survivor, racecars dropped out of the competition one by one as sustained engine speeds approaching 9000 rpm continued to push mechanical components to the brink of self-destruction. Steve Park, Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, Mike Wallace and Ron Hornaday were the first to bring their cars behind the wall. Martin commented on his disappointment: "We were just getting in position where we could halfway run there and the next stop was gonna be even better. We had a tire that was starting to equalize right there and by the time we got to the next stop and got four tires and one adjustment, we were fixing to probably have a chance to sneak up into the top 10 in points and in finish. I'm disappointed."

Then Matt Kenseth's motor let go, and brilliant flames surrounded the car as oil caught fire underneath the car. As he wrestled his car to the infield grass, every one held their collective breath as he tried to escape from the thick smoke within his cockpit. The suspense was quickly broken as Matt eased himself through the window opening, HANS device and all. As an essential ingredient to a Perfect Race, there were no safety problems this day in Atlanta.

Perhaps Matt Kenseth's team should have left the qualifying engine in place.  The race engine failed, engulfing the car in burning oil flames.

Bobby Labonte, last year's champion, labored his Pontiac around the track at a speed that wasn't going to garner him a top-ten finish. The number 18 Interstate Pontiac had lost a cylinder and was puffing more smoke than a 1975 Ford Pinto that failed its DMV inspection. Dave Blaney in his Amoco Dodge was having an outstanding performance for the first half of the race. However, one of the quirks about automobiles is that they need all four wheels to roll properly. Blaney's chance for a victory was eliminated when one of his rear wheels decided to mutiny the rest of the car. It was quite humorous for most fans to watch the wheel roll past his incapacitated vehicle, but certainly not if you were on Dave's team.

Jeff Gordon's ride on Sunday was as up and down as a sine curve in a math class. After leading many laps early on, it seemed like the #24 DuPont Chevy was an odds on favorite to win its second victory in a row. But in addition to needing all four wheels, a racecar also needs fuel for the engine to function properly. Doing its imitation of the 1970's gas crisis, Gordon's engine sucked the fuel tank dry before a scheduled pit stop. He was forced to coast around the entire track before he could get refueled, losing valuable track position. When he got back on the track, the race leader was now a lap behind, severely jeopardizing any chances he had of fighting for the lead.

Whoever said that teamwork wins races should stand up and take a bow. Later in the race, as a caution was instituted by NASCAR officials, Gordon pushed his car as fast as he could to get back to the start-finish line in an attempt to get back on the lead lap. There was only one obstacle to overcome. That obstacle was the leader of the race, Jerry Nadeau, who was seemingly light-years ahead of Gordon.  Given that Nadeau was Gordon's teammate, team owner Hendrick gave the command for Nadeau to slow down and let Gordon pass. In a move you don't see every day, Nadeau slammed on his brakes to let Gordon nip him at the line, and the mission was accomplished. As it turns out, that wasn't the only nipping at the line that would take place that day. Gordon and Nadeau later joked about the cooperation between the drivers, ''I'm going to spend a week at his house for getting his lap back,'' Nadeau said, laughing. ''And all the meals are on the house, wherever you want to go, man,'' Gordon said. ''I'll send you to the Bahamas if you want to go to the Bahamas.'' 

With about 25 laps to go, Sterling Marlin's engine answered the 5 o'clock whistle and went home for the day, thus ending Dodge's hopes of a top-five finish. As the television announcers kept alluding to, Jeff Gordon had made his way back up to sixth place, but was substantially behind the pack. He subsequently managed to pass Johnny Benson, getting into fifth place as he began to catch the lead pack. This started one of the most edge-of-your-seat racing sequences I can remember. Harvick, Dale Jarrett, Gordon, Nadeau and Terry Labonte spent the remaining laps jockeying for position in a pedal-to-the-metal exhibition of raw power, speed and strategy.

As if playing a Nintendo NASCAR racing game, the top five drivers ran as many as three or four different lines around the track, all the while swerving and dodging lapped traffic. As they came around one turn three abreast, all the announcers could manage was alternating statements of "This is gettin' good" and "This could get ugly". Gordon attempted to pay back his teammate Nadeau and push him towards Harvick, the front-runner. When that didn't seem to work, Jeff abandoned the idea, passed Nadeau and made a run at Harvick himself. Harvick managed to fend off Gordon until the last lap, when Gordon made a last-ditch effort to pull ahead of Harvick on the very inside of the track. At the finish line, Harvick was a mere six one-thousands of a second ahead of Gordon. Like an Olympic sprinter, Harvick's #29 Goodwrench Chevy outstretched the second-place finisher at the tape by a mere 1.67 feet. After 500 miles of awesome racing, Harvick won the race by the length of an average computer keyboard.

Immediately following the finish, all heaven broke loose. There were more tears flowing from fans and the team members than from guests on the Oprah Winfrey show. Even Richard Childress and Chocolate Myers broke down and cried from the significance of the day's events. When asked to put into words how special the victory was, Childress responded, "No, I just can't. I just kept praying there at the end - praying for Dale (Earnhardt) to help us - and he did. I'm speechless." No matter what team you were on or what driver you rooted for, this race embraced everyone's soul with a giant warm hug as if we were children being gathered in the arms of a loving parent.

In victory lane, a humble Busch driver named Kevin Harvick, who until recently was relatively unknown, was celebrating a win in Dale Earnhardt's car, in just his third Winston Cup event. As Kevin said, "All I've got to say is that this one's for Dale. I didn't really ever know if we could do it. But we never gave up and this RCR team and this GM Goodwrench Chevrolet was good all day long. We just kind of bided our time and I think somebody was watching over us."

A Hollywood screenwriter could not have scripted the race any better. In my book, the Perfect Race wins this year's Oscar hands down.

I don't know about you, but I need to rest up before this coming week's race in Darlington. With this much emotion and excitement in four short weeks, I was completely exhausted by Sunday night. And what can we expect next week and during the rest of the year? With any luck, maybe NASCAR can produce a few successful sequels to the Perfect Race.

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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