MRN Flashback: 2003 Aaron's 499
By: MRN Staff on April 30, 2014 | 2:30 P.M. EST
Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in 2003 at Talladega. (Photo: ISC Archives)
In April 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his mastery of Talladega Superspeedway by winning his fourth straight race on the mammoth Alabama oval.
“Junior” edged Kevin Harvick by a mere .125 seconds to win the Aaron’s 499, claiming the first of his two Sprint Cup Series victories that year. It extended Earnhardt’s winning streak on the 2.66-mile track that began in the fall of 2001 and continued with a season sweep in 2002.
Earnhardt had to start last after changing an engine after Saturday's Happy Hour practice and was also part of a massive 27-car accident on lap 27. But Earnhardt had the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet in front early in the second half of the race. He led a total of 34 laps including the last two after passing Matt Kenseth for his final lead of the afternoon. Harvick started second and finished second with Elliott Sadler, Ricky Craven and Terry Labonte completing the top five.
Earnhardt dodged a big bullet with three laps to go when he went below the yellow "out of bounds" line passing Kenseth for what turned out to be the winning move. NASCAR ruled the move legal and that he was forced below the line through no fault of his own and allowed the pass without a black flag.
The 27 car melee nearly wiped out more than half the field on lap four. It started when Ryan Newman cut a tire on his Dodge racing through Turns 3 and 4. Newman shot up the race track and into the middle of the field. Before it was over the likes of Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Johnny Benson and Jerry Nadeau were sidelined.
Earnhardt slipped through the accident with minimal damage. He did wind up pitting 17 times during the race for repairs as well as fuel and tires.
Earnhardt’s only other victory that season would come seven months later at Phoenix International Raceway. He narrowly missed his fifth straight Talladega win when the Sprint Cup Series returned in last September, finishing second to teammate Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt went on to finish a career-best third in the final 2003 standings, behind Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson led a race-high 65 laps and finished 15th. Pole sitter Jeremy Mayfield was 18th, one lap down to Earnhardt. Tony Raines was the highest-finishing rookie, in 16th place.
The race featured 43 lead changes among 16 drivers. There were six cautions for 32 laps.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is returning to Talladega Superspeedway this week for Sunday’s 45th running of the Aaron’s 499.
Visit MRN.com on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. (ET) to hear the complete broadcast of the 2003 Aaron’s 499 from Talladega Superspeedway, 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.