Earnhardt Injured in Spectacular Crash; Jeff Gordon Wins
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Restricted engines mean close racing on the Winston Cup circuit, and close racing usually means crashes.
That’s the norm at Talladega Superspeedway, where seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt was injured Sunday in one of two multi-car crashes during the rain-delayed and darkness-shortened DieHard 500.
The crash that left Earnhardt hospitalized with a fractured left collarbone and sternum overshadowed Jeff Gordon’s sixth victory of the season, one that boosted him into the series points lead for the first time this season.
The 11-car wreck began on lap 117 when Ernie Irvan tagged the rear of Sterling Marlin’s car, which then banged Earnhardt’s Chevrolet. The car slammed into the concrete wall, bounded off upside down and was hit hard by Derrike Cope and then Robert Pressley before coming to rest on its wheels far down the track.
Earnhardt, driving in his 501st consecutive race, refused to lay on a stretcher and walked to the ambulance for his trip to the infield care center. He was released this morning after an overnight stay at Carraway Methodist Hospital in Birmingham, and was heading back to his North Carolina home.
``I went to see Dale and he’s OK,″ Marlin said. ``I think he’s scared of needles and they wanted to give him a shot.″
Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s car owner, said, ``He said he felt pretty good other than just hurting up in his chest. I believe he’ll be OK. He’s tough. ... He can handle it.″
Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR’s longest and fastest tracks, are the only places where the sanctioning body requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars down. But, by slowing them, they also have bunched the field.
At times Sunday, the 2.66-mile Talladega oval looked like a freeway at rush hour. Late in the race there were still more than 30 cars on the lead lap, most of them bunched in packs close behind the leaders.
Terry Labonte, who went into the race with a 12-point lead over Earnhardt and an 80-point edge on Gordon in the season standings, was involved in the second big wreck and wound up 24th. He slipped nine points behind Gordon, while Earnhardt fell to third, 23 points back.
``We probably didn’t have a chance to win today, but we would have had a good chance for a good finish. So did the 3 (Earnhardt) and 4 (Marlin) and some of the other guys,″ Labonte said.
``It’s a shame you get taken out,″ he said. ``It happens every time here. You see a lot of good cars that are innocent victims of somebody else’s mistake. That’s the result of restrictor plate racing.″
Gordon, 24, was the eventual beneficiary of the big crash, which brought out a red flag _ the second of the race _ to allow the track to be cleaned up.
During that delay, with the sun setting, NASCAR officials decided there would be only five more green-flag laps. so they shortened the scheduled 188-lap event to 129 laps.
Gordon, who now has 15 career victories, was leading Jimmy Spencer and Dale Jarrett when the racing resumed. Jarrett moved into second in the first turn and drove past Gordon on the outside to take the lead in turn three.
But Gordon kept stalking the leader until he was able to get alongside in turn two on lap 127. With a little boost from third-place Jeff Burton, Gordon’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo moved past Jarrett’s Ford Thunderbird.
That’s the way it stayed to the checkered flag at the end of lap 129, with Gordon winning by about three car lengths _ .146 seconds. Mark Martin was third, followed by Irvan and Spencer. Burton slipped to seventh.
``The circumstances happened to work out,″ said Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion. ``I saw about six or eight Fords behind me and I knew about the middle of the back straightaway if they had a run on me they could get me, and that’s exactly what Dale did.
``I didn’t give up, but I was one lonesome Chevrolet out there. Some guys out there had to make moves to better themselves and Jeff Burton happened to be one of them. He kept diving down there at the bottom and I just made sure I tried to block him so he couldn’t get by me.
``When I did,″ Gordon added, ``he gave me a heck of a boost. I had so much momentum. I don’t think Jarrett could keep me from getting by him.″
The first crash, on lap 114, caused at least some damage to 14 cars. Everyone escaped injury and most of the cars were able to continue.
Gordon won a Talladega-record $272,550, including a $160,000 bonus from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco for winning a race while leading the points. He averaged 133.387 mph.
Rain delayed the start of the race by 3 hours, 23 minutes and there was another 23-minute red flag because of rain after the first nine laps were run under caution as officials hoped the race cars would help dry the track.