Same Old Story
September 30, 2003 | 12:44 A.M. EST
In the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Waltrip used drafting help from Earnhardt Jr to take the lead from Kurt Busch with nine laps remaining. To get into position to help his teammate, Earnhardt Jr overcame a damaged front end after pit road contact early in the race. He lost a lap under green flag conditions but got back on the lead lap when Jimmie Johnson spun on lap 142.
Less than 20 laps later, the Budweiser Chevrolet was at the front of the field. As the laps wound down and final pit stops were made, Busch assumed the lead before being overtaken by the DEI twosome. After a lengthy red flag due to Elliott Sadler's wreck with six laps to go, the final restart found Waltrip leading Earnhardt Jr, Ward Burton, and Jeff Gordon. With three laps remaining, Gordon dove low in turn one to pass Burton and brought Ryan Newman up to fourth.
The top four remained in line until the backstretch on the final lap when Gordon pulled to the high line and inched ahead of Earnhardt Jr. In turn four, Waltrip moved high to block Gordon who opened up his inside with the all or nothing move. Kevin Harvick jumped inside of Gordon as Rusty Wallace came up on the high side to give Gordon drafting help. Waltrip went low to keep Earnhardt Jr behind him at the finish line while Tony Stewart and Newman got around Gordon in the tri-oval for position. It was Gordon's second consecutive top-five finish though he remains winless in restrictor plate races since the 2000 season.
"We had a strong car all day and led a bunch of laps," said Gordon, who led the lion's share of laps in the middle stages of the event. "Losing Jimmie Johnson out there hurt us a little bit; we had a great drafting partner with him and he and I were working real well together. There at the end we had to come in for fuel and we came in and I saw how far back we were and said, 'should we come and get tires?'
I wanted to go up through the middle. I knew that was the way to get back to the front. I didn't know if my car would handle as good as I wanted it to to stay wide open up through there. So we got tires, fell to the back and it didn't look good there for a while. But once we caught the pack we just blew up through there. Those last few laps were pretty exciting. I was apologizing to my team because I let Harvick get to the inside of me in the middle of turns three and four.
I put myself in a perfect position. I had a push, got by Junior, and had my sights set on Michael. I had the momentum and he moved up. When I moved up with him, Harvick snuck to the inside of me. I'm going to go for the win. I'm not going to stay there in third. I'm glad that I did, we still ended up with the top-five, and I'm real happy with that."
In the last 12 restrictor plate races, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr have combined for nine wins including five consecutive wins at Talladega. The new rules with increased drag allowing for slightly faster lap times seemed to have little effect on the competition and drafting pack.
"I just went out and drove my car the best I possibly could," Gordon said. "I didn't see a big difference from before other than you could bump draft a lot more."
The largest incident of the day involved six cars on the tenth lap of the race. Jeremy Mayfield cut a tire and the ensuing melee swept up David Green, Larry Foyt, Johnny Benson, Tony Raines, and Jimmy Spencer. A single car spin involving Jimmie Johnson occurred on lap 142. While Johnson was side-by-side with Waltrip for the lead, a bump draft from Earnhardt Jr sent Waltrip into Johnson's Chevrolet. The scariest incident came with six laps to go when Earnhardt Jr made a move to come down from the high line on the backstretch. Sadler, running in the middle, tried to give him room by moving lower on the track.
However, Sadler went into Kurt Busch's path sending his car into an end over end romp through the grass and back onto the asphalt in turn three. Another incident occurred after the checkered flag waved when the cars were slowing down which damaged Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin's cars.