MRN Flashback: 2001 NAPA 500
By: MRN Staff on March 19, 2014 | 2:22 P.M. EST
In April 2001, Rusty Wallace fended off a late charge from Jeff Gordon to pick up his first victory of the season in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway, known today as Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)
In April 2001, Rusty Wallace fended off a late charge from Jeff Gordon to pick up his first victory of the season in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway, known today as Auto Club Speedway.
It was the fifth victory for Wallace in the state of California, two of those coming at the old Riverside road course and two coming at Sonoma Raceway. However, it was the first victory of Wallace’s career on the two-mile oval built by his team owner Roger Penske.
Gordon finished second by .27 seconds followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield. Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Jerry Nadeau, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Benson completed the top 10.
Thanks to Mayfield’s win the previous year, it was the second consecutive victory for a Penske-owned team at the track.
"For me and Jeremy to have won the last two years is pretty cool," Wallace said. "It was a great day for us and the car ran super. When we were 40 laps into the race, I knew we had a great car that was capable of winning."
Wallace had his hands full down the stretch trying to hold off a fast-closing Gordon.
"At one time, I was about 40 car lengths ahead," Wallace said. "But it kept getting smaller and smaller. I knew that once Gordon got up to me, his car would pick up a push. But he made a valiant effort. If I’d screwed up, Gordon would have gotten me. Anytime you can beat Jeff Gordon, you know you’ve done something."
Gordon said he tried all he could to pull off the pass of Wallace until he simply ran out of laps.
"I gave it all I could, but that wasn’t enough for Rusty," Gordon said after coming up just short of his second victory of the season. "With a guy like Rusty, the only way you’re going to beat him is if he makes a mistake. He deserved to win because he had the best car. I got up to him, but he was real strong and nothing I did was working."
After taking the checkered flag, Wallace gave the 110,000 fans in attendance something to remember when he stopped and got a black No. 3 flag in memory of his late friend and fellow competitor Dale Earnhardt; and did a slow victory lap with the flag flying out of the No. 2 Miller Ford.
"I’ve wanted to do something for Dale ever since he lost his life at Daytona," Wallace said. "I kept waiting and waiting to win. Now that it finally happened, it's a special feeling to be able to carry his flag around on his 50th birthday (April 29). I hope his family knows it was for them."
With the victory, Wallace jumped from sixth to fourth in the Cup Series point standings. Gordon, the eventual series champion that season, also closed on points leader Dale Jarrett - who finished 24th, allowing Gordon to trim his deficit to 66 points.
For Earnhardt Jr., his effort was his best finish since the season-opening Daytona 500, when he finished second.
"We had a good car, but we had terrible luck all weekend," he said. "It started Friday when I crashed my primary car before qualifying and we had to take a provisional (starting position) to make the race. Then on Saturday, we blew a motor in the first practice and had problems with the hood hinge in the last practice. It was a mess.
"After all that, we ran out of gas today. I just stayed with it and finally got back on the lead lap. We had a good car even though it was difficult to pass when I was running behind the other cars. Once we got back on the lead lap, we had a strong car and were able to make our way up through the field. I could have won the race, I just didn’t have enough luck to do any better than what we did."
Visit MRN.com on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. (ET) to hear the complete broadcast of the 2001 NAPA Auto Parts 500 from Auto Club Speedway, anchored by Barney Hall and Joe Moore. Motor Racing Network – "The Voice of NASCAR" – features a classic race each week on "Throwback Thursday" only at MRN.com.