Nadeau Doesnt In The End
November 18, 2001 | 6:00 P.M. EST
The 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season has been a rather strange one, to say the least, and the ending to Sunday’s NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway ranks right up there with the strangest and most surprising of the year.
Jerry Nadeau, who had earned his first and only career Winston Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway one year ago, appeared to be cruising to a victory in the NAPA 500 after taking the lead in the final 20 laps. Nadeau’s car sputtered, however, and ran out fuel with a half mile to go, allowing 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte to gain his second victory of a rather disappointing season.
Nadeau has struggled as well this season, but Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of his favorite tracks. He was forced to take a provisional during qualifying and he started from the 41st position, but that didn’t matter as he quickly made his way through the field.
He first grabbed the lead on Lap 242 and led for 22 circuits after battling with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jr., who led the most laps Sunday afternoon, regained the lead for 31 laps, but it was clear that Nadeau was much better on longer runs that Earnhardt Jr.
Bobby Labonte led for 12 laps before Nadeau went to the point on Lap 306. Nadeau was headed toward the checkered flag when he ran out fuel and settled for a fourth-place finish.
“There’s not much I can say. That’s pretty heartbreaking,” said an obviously despondent Nadeau, who led 41 total laps Sunday. “I expected to win because we had a pretty fast car. It’s really too bad. We just ran out of fuel, and I don’t know why. We should have gotten much better fuel mileage than that. This is one we should have won, but we’ve got one more race this year (next Friday at New Hampshire), and hopefully we can win that one.”
This is the one that got away from Nadeau and the No. 25 UAW-Delphi Chevy team. The fifth caution of the day occurred on Lap 263 when Ricky Rudd hit the wall, and the leaders all pitted.
During the final long run, there was speculation that Nadeau might not be able to make it the final 58 green flag laps on fuel, but other teams were saying they were fine.
“We were in really good shape on fuel,” said Sterling Marlin, who wound up finishing second. “We didn’t put enough gear in the car and I think we could have gone several more laps. We didn’t turn many RPMs today because we just kind of idled through the corners and we didn’t burn much fuel. I know it had to be a heartbreaker for Nadeau. He runs really good at this track. He should have won the spring race here. I know it breaks his heart.”
“I know there have been some strange things that have happened this year, but I doubt he’s (Nadeau) the first one to run out of gas on the last lap,” said Kevin Harvick, who finished third after winning the spring race at Atlanta. “We were close on fuel, but we had to keep going. We chugged around under the yellow there and tried to save as much as we could, but we were getting good fuel mileage all day long. We thought we could make it, but we weren’t 100 percent sure.”
Nadeau had as much as a five-second lead on Labonte on the final lap, and Labonte said he still wasn’t sure what was going on until he passed Nadeau.
“I never saw him until I got into the middle of (turns) three and four,” Labonte said. “I passed him near the entrance to pit road, and he was down on the bottom of the track. When I was coming into three, I couldn’t make out where he was.
“It was just one of those deals where they got on the radio and said there’s a possibility he’ll (Nadeau) run out of gas, but I had no idea it was that close, and I didn’t take it to heart that he would run out of gas. I just drove hard because I thought he had such a big lead that it wouldn’t matter. It was a gift for me for that point in time.”
Labonte wasn’t about to feel sorry for Nadeau, however. Labonte has had six DNFs this season (as opposed to none during his championship campaign a year ago), and has managed only two victories. He’s sixth in the points heading into the season finale at New Hampshire next week.
“I hate it for Jerry, but we sure could use this,” Labonte said. “I do hate it for Jerry, but if we had to be in the right place at the right time, this was it. You take them anyway you can get ‘em these days because they’re so tough to get. We’ve had some misfortune this year ourselves, so, no, I don’t feel sorry for him at all.”
Following his victory at Atlanta last fall, it appeared as if Nadeau was destined for a strong run at the Top 10 in the points this season. It’s been a struggle, however, as Nadeau is 17th in the Winston Cup points standings with nine top-10 and four top-five finishes.
“It’s been an unlucky season,” Nadeau said. “I knew coming off (turn) two the car started starving for fuel. I know (crew chief) Tony (Furr) was a little worried on fuel. I’m happy because we had a great run, but this is pretty disappointing.”
Disappointing, but typical of a year of surprises in the Winston Cup Series.