Strangers In A Strange Land

“Strangers in a Strange Land” is a science-fiction novel about a survivor of a trip to Mars. Of course, Strangers in a Strange Land could be about survivors of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

If you believe legend, Talladega was built on a Native American burial ground – a strange land.

If you believe numbers, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Hut Stricklin, Geoffrey Bodine and Brett Bodine were strangers in that strange land Sunday. All five finished in the Top 13, and four of the five posted their best finishes of the season.

Interestingly, the one who did, Geoffrey Bodine, has competed in only one other race this season.

Still, the quintet of drivers haven’t seen the front of the field much lately, but they were all factors of one sort or another Sunday. Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made sure no one was much of a factor, but the drivers who picked up the scraps were happy with what they got.

Waltrip likely was the happiest of the bunch, for it seemed like he had the only car to challenge Junior. That makes sense, since the two are Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates.

“It was a good day for our team,” Waltrip said. “We knew we had one of the fastest cars. Junior wound up being a little stronger than us all day. But I had a lot of fun running second and seeing how long I could sit there and protect it. We made a deal: whoever was there, the other one would take care of him. I was proud of him for blocking for me when he needed to, and that’s what I did for him.”

Waltrip stayed in second in the latter half of the race, running interference for Earnhardt Jr. Toward the end, though, several cars made moves on the Top 2.

“But none of them were able to get to us until Kurt (Busch) finally broke free and got there coming to the checkered flag,” Waltrip said. “I was in jail. The only thing I could do at that point was lose second because I was like a hanger-oner. They were going to get to me and pass me, and I was going to slow down their momentum as they reached for Junior. So when they came by me and slowed down he could have blocked them off. I would have been in jail. No, I couldn’t do anything, nor could’ve anyone done anything. I was just sitting there.”

Waltrip’s second-place finish was his best outside the state of Florida since 1988.

Petty’s 10th-place result was his best in two years and Petty Enterprises’ best since John Andretti finished second at Bristol last March. Petty was with the lead draft late in the race, running behind eventual sixth-place finisher Dale Jarrett. But Petty got booted out of his spot by Sterling Marlin and had to scramble to regain lost ground.

“The car ran good and drove good,” Petty said. “I just could never get where I needed to be. All of a sudden it opened up, and I got where I needed to be, and the big wreck happened.

“I knew I didn’t have anything for those guys at the end. With about 15 laps to go I went to the bottom, and I knew I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If I got shuffled to the back it didn’t make any difference. I got shuffled to the back and had to fight my way back up there.

“This is another race we finished on the lead lap. It’s another race we finished in the top 15. That’s our goal, and you can’t get ahead of your goal.”

The goal is to keep improving, and Petty seems to be doing that. He’s qualified for every race this season without using a provisional, and has finished 15th or better in four of the last six races.

“I think our momentum is building,” Petty said. “It’s building every week. If you go back
to Daytona, we struggled there. We don’t look for huge gains. We look for small gains. We run 20th one week, we try to run 18th the next week. We don’t run 20th one week and try to win the next week.”

Stricklin would love to finish 20th, for it’s been a tough season for his Bill Davis Racing team. He hadn’t finished in the top half of any Winston Cup race this season, even missing the Daytona 500 while teammate Ward Burton won it.

Sunday, though, Stricklin was the best he’s been this year, posting his best finish since an 11th last season at Atlanta – in his first appearance in a BDR car.

“I had a great race car,” Stricklin said. “I can’t say enough about these guys at Bill Davis Racing. They’ve done a great job, and we just keep getting better and better every week. I’m more and more confident. We just needed some luck (Sunday), needed some helpers. We just couldn’t get it.

“It feels good to run good here. I probably had the best race car today that I’ve ever had here. I really felt like I had a shot at winning if I could have ever got up there. We finished 11th and that was on our own. We didn’t get a lot of help, so all-in-all, that’s not too bad.”

Finishing 12th and 13th wasn’t too bad for the Bodine brothers, either. Brett’s 13th was his best of the season, and seeing his No. 11 Ford run toward the front had to be a sight for Hooters’ eyes.

Geoffrey finishing 12th was pretty good, too. In two races in 2002, Geoffrey has finished third and 12th. If you average those numbers over the full season, Bodine would be second to Marlin in the points standings.

“Well, we missed the wreck again,” Bodine said. “We were looking like we were going to have another good finish like Daytona, but on the caution restart, we got ganged-up and just couldn’t get in the right place. Nobody wanted to help me. Of course, everyone’s working for themselves at that point.

“We’re still happy with it. The car’s in one piece, we’ll take it back to Daytona and try again down there. I’m just glad we missed the wreck. … It always happens, doesn’t it?”

In Talladega, the only thing that always happens is … something strange.

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