Contenders Out On Odd Day

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The number of Daytona 500 contenders almost matched the number of wrecked racecars Sunday.

Almost. But after a grinding 18-car crash 50 laps from the finish, Daytona International Speedway resembled a junkyard. That Big Wreck, and several other incidents, dashed the hopes of several drivers hoping to start 2002 by winning NASCAR Winston Cup’s biggest race.

There was Sterling Marlin, a victim of, well, Sterling Marlin.

There was Jeff Gordon, a victim of Jeff Gordon – and Kevin Harvick.

There was Kurt Busch, a victim of inexperience.

There was Ken Schrader, a victim of an ill-timed pit stop and The Big Wreck.

There was Michael Waltrip, a victim of Mark Martin.

There was Dale Earnhardt Jr., a victim of two flat tires, brake problems and The Big Wreck.

There was Tony Stewart, a victim of a blown engine.

Heck, we haven’t even mentioned second-place Elliott Sadler and third-place Geoffrey Bodine. But they weren’t really contenders until the other contenders weren’t contenders any more. And that was in the final three laps of the race.

“A lot of guys didn’t use much patience, and a whole new crop of drivers were up front today just because the veterans seemed to want to go to the front and bully everybody around,” Busch said. “It seemed like it was an odd race.”

“Crazy race out there,” Gordon said.

“It was a wreckfest,” Jeff Burton said.

The Big Wreck did take out a few top contenders. But there were plenty of other strange circumstances.

Marlin led the most laps, 78, and was in a good position to win when the race restarted with six laps to go. He trailed leader Gordon and made a good restart. But the two got together when Gordon tried to block. Gordon ended up on the apron and out of the lead, and Marlin beat Ward Burton back to the caution flag.

NASCAR, as has become its custom, displayed the red flag. Marlin, worried about his car, crawled out and pulled his right-front fender off the tire. Whoops.

“I got the fender on the tire,” Marlin said. “We tried to get it off, but NASCAR didn’t like it.”

NASCAR rules say you can’t work on a race car during the red flag, and that includes drivers-turned-mechanics. Marlin was sent to the end of the lead-lap cars, which eliminated his shot at a third Daytona 500 victory.

Gordon was going for a third Daytona 500 victory, too. His incident with Marlin looked a lot like an incident with Harvick. While battling for second, Harvick threw a block up high, and when Gordon darted low, Harvick tried another block. But like Marlin, Gordon didn’t back off and tapped Harvick, triggering the big 18-car crash.

Gordon escaped relatively unscathed, but then he and Marlin tangled. Gordon then pitted too soon and was sent to the end of the line with Marlin.

“We had a good handling car, a fast race car, and we had great pit stops,” Gordon said. “We were able to work our way back up there and found ourselves in perfect position. Unfortunately, that caution came out.”

Interestingly, Gordon had gotten the lead earlier in a similar fashion that he lost it: on a re-start. When the green waved with 24 laps to go, Busch was in the lead as a result of a good move around Marlin 15 laps earlier.

But Gordon zipped around Busch on the outside heading into Turn 3, and everyone followed him.

“I knew I had a car to win the race,” Busch said. “I was the victim of a re-start. I didn’t want to get too aggressive with blocking because people were getting sent for that.”

Instead of getting turned sideways, Busch got sent backwards out of the draft.

The back of the pack was where Schrader was for The Big Wreck. That was odd because Schrader looked strong the first half of the race, comfortably leading 46 of the first 74 laps. But on Lap 75, Schrader was the first of the leaders to make a pit stop. He was never seen from again, except as a heap of metal inside Turn 2.

Typical of Schrader, his answer as to what happened was short and to the point. Asked what he saw, Schrader said, “Smoke.”

Waltrip saw a little bit of everything. He saw the lead, getting out front from Lap 4 to Lap 23. He saw the back of the draft, having to fight his way to the front. He saw the infield grass, getting punted by Martin with four laps to go. In the end, he saw fifth place.

“Battle of wrecks,” Waltrip said. “That’s what you’ll have in restrictor-plate races. We do that a lot here. The further it goes, the more stuff you’ll see. It gets wild. People get desperate at the end. I understand that. I get desperate, too.”

Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart never had a chance to get desperate. Stewart, who won last Sunday’s Budweiser Shootout and finished second in his qualifying race, blew up on the second lap to end a possible run at his first Daytona 500 victory.

Junior looked strong, running second to Waltrip early in the race. But a flat right-front tire forced some extensive work on his fender. Earnhardt Jr. bounced back to run in the Top 10, but his right-rear tire went flat. The crew also had to repair his brakes, and then Earnhardt Jr. got involved in The Big Wreck.

“We just kept coming back,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose Speedweeks highlight was winning the Busch Series race Saturday in a car bearing the No. 3. “It says a lot about the team, the guys. They don’t want to give up.

“Overcoming the flat tires and being competitive with no fender, that was cool. Sliding through the infield at 160 miles per hour with no brakes and no right-rear tire, that was cool. A lot of neat things happened this weekend.”

A lot of weird things happened, too – especially to many contenders.

Burton Loses Winning Car
As has become a Daytona tradition, Burton’s winning car was inducted into Daytona USA on Monday morning. The No. 22 Dodge will be at the museum/attraction for a year.

Burton’s crew predicted the induction earlier this week, but Burton wasn’t as confident.

“My teammates were really confident,” Burton said. “(Crew chief) Tommy (Baldwin), (engine builder) Terry Elledge and all the guys working on the car the last two weeks kept saying, ‘This car is going to stay at Daytona.’ I’d laugh at them and say, ‘Yeah, yeah. That would be great.’

“But they were very confident that this car was going to stay in Daytona USA.”

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