Tom Jensen, SpeedTV.com
First they crashed.
Then they crashed again.
And then at long last, they raced. Did they ever.
Dale Jarrett came out of nowhere on the last lap to win a crash-filled, but ultimately thrilling UAW-Ford 500 NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday, snapping a 98-race winless streak.
Jarrett’s victory, the 32nd of his Cup career, was a brief but explosive climax to a race marred by a degree of mayhem that saw more bent sheet metal and frayed tempers than you’d find in a month of Bristols.
The afternoon of violence and drama was perhaps best summed up by Ryan Newman, who finished fourth behind Jarrett, runner-up Tony Stewart and third-place Matt Kenseth.
Prior to their post-race media center interviews, Stewart looked at Newman and asked him if he was glad that they didn’t have any more restrictor-plate races this year.
“I’m just glad to get out of here alive,” said Newman.
He wasn’t the only one, nor was he kidding.
A combination of intense heat and even more intense stress from racing 190 laps door-to-door at 190+ miles per hour left all the drivers drained, even the race winner, who slumped down by the side of his car in victory lane after his wild win.
Jarrett led only two laps in his UPS-sponsored, Robert Yates-owned Ford, Lap 3 and the only lap that pays points – the final one. The win was the first for a Ford at Talladega since 1998.
The dramatic victory was set up on Lap 184, when Kenseth was leading Newman. The lapped car of Ken Schrader blew a left-rear tire and spun in Turn 4, bringing out a caution flag and ensuring the race would extend past its scheduled distance of 188 laps.
The caution period ended when the green flag fell to start Lap 189, with Kenseth leading Newman, Stewart, Jarrett and Jamie McMurray. Kenseth and Newman began to ease away in front and it looked as if the two might rocket away.
But as they came across the frontstretch to start the 190th and final lap, Stewart dove low to move into the lead. Then they went three-wide on the backstretch, with Jarrett coming out of nowhere to take the lead in Turn 3 just as the caution came out yet again as Kyle Petty wrecked on the backstretch.
“On the restart, I kind of made a deal to go with Tony,” Jarrett said of the last-lap thriller. “I know he’s racing for a championship there and being in fourth I wasn’t sure what kind of chance I would get, but I thought if could go with him – but we kind of got a bad restart up front and guys started dicing around.
“When we got back to the tri-oval, I had gotten a little push and Tony went to the outside,” Jarrett said. “I said, ‘Well, I told him I’d follow him, I’m going.’ He had such a run that he went from the outside to the inside and I didn’t have anywhere to go but to the outside of Matt. He was trying to block Tony and it worked out, and then Matt gave me a push down the backstretch and that was the winning part of it.”
It was a huge momentum boost for the Yates team, which has had eight crew chief changes in the last three years, and for Jarrett personally, who had not won since February 2003 at the now-shuttered Rockingham, N.C. track.
The victory came just one race after the latest crew-chief change, which reunited Jarrett and Todd Parrott, who turned the wrenches in Jarrett’s lone championship season.
“When you get to this point of your career you’re not exactly sure when that last victory is gonna be there, so you learn to cherish each one,” Jarrett said. “Todd has brought a lot of leadership back to our team … this means a lot to me.”
“I made a promise to Robert (car owner Yates) that I’d put the No. 88 back in victory lane before the end of the season,” said Parrott. “I just didn’t know it would be this soon.”
But before the No. 88 team’s thrill of victory, there was an awful lot of agony of defeat.
The restrictor-plate carnage began early on this hot October Sunday afternoon.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was on the high side in fifth place on Lap 20 right behind Jimmie Johnson going into Turn 1. Johnson’s car made contact with the rear end of pole-sitter Elliott Sadler’s Ford, which spun around into the outside wall as Earnhardt rammed the back of Johnson.
A melee ensued, as Michael Waltrip’s car flipped high in the air and Mark Martin’s Ford was destroyed.
Who was to blame was the subject of a contentious debate. Earnhardt blamed Sadler for lifting; Sadler blamed Johnson for running over him. Martin said it was all God’s will.
“The No. 48 (Johnson) had to slow down for something,” Earnhardt said. “He just stopped and I couldn’t get slowed down and I run into the back of him. Apparently, he got into the guy in front of him and then turned Elliott around. I don’t know how they got checked up or what they checked up for.”
“The No. 48 car just completely ran over us and I don’t why,” fumed Sadler. “NASCAR makes put three pedals in these cars and the middle one’s the brake. Most of the time it works, but for some reason his didn’t work today.”
“I told some guys a while ago that it’s hard to fight God’s will and today’s God’s will was for me to finish about last,” Martin said.
The most circumspect explanation came from Johnson. “I was getting a huge push from behind. I’ve got my hand up waving off the No. 8 (Earnhardt) and I was on the brakes, trying not to get into the back of the No. 38 (Sadler),” Johnson said. “But there is only so much you can do when you’re getting a push … There is energy built up behind all these cars and one guy up there on the brakes isn’t going to slow it down and the No. 38 got turned around.
“I feel horrible for it. If I got into him, I take responsibility. It’s not a big deal to me. I can accept that. But when you’re getting pushed, there’s not a lot you can do,” said Johnson.
Johnson suffered what looked to be relatively minor damage in the collision, but his fate soon worsened dramatically. On Lap 33, he cut a left-rear tire, which ripped away most of the sheet metal on the quarter-panel.
But that would not be the day’s worst incident. On Lap 66, Ryan Newman drilled Casey Mears on the high-side in the tri-oval, causing another massive crash featuring an airborne car.
This time the unlucky pilot was Scott Riggs, whose Checkers/Rally’s Chevrolet flipped several times, including a pirouette over the nose of Jeff Burton’s car.
Collected in this wreck were Johnson, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, among others. Wallace was able to continue five laps in arrears of the field, while Biffle required more extensive repairs.
So bad was the wrecking that by Lap 66 of 188, fully one-third of the field was either out of the race permanently or in the garage for repairs.
The wreckage also jumbled up the points, with Stewart now leading Newman by four points as the teams head to Kansas next week for the fourth of 10 races in the Chase.
And you can bet the 43 teams are glad they’ve run their last restrictor-plate race of 2005.