When another streak ended
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012
As Dale Earnhardt, Jr., stirringly snapped his four-year, 143-race NASCAR Cup Series winless streak Sunday in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, I thought back to an equally exciting time just over 17 years earlier.
It took place on May 7, 1995 at Sears Point Raceway, the road course near the Napa Valley in Northern California, and it involved Dale Juniors legendary dad.
Dale Earnhardt passed Mark Martin, who was dominating the race, on the 73rd of 74th laps at the track now named Infineon Raceway and dramatically made the Save Mart 300 the first-road course victory of his Cup career.
Martin had kept his Ford in front for all but two circuits since Lap 6 on the 2.52-mile, 11-turn track.
But running downhill through looping Turn 6, nicknamed "The Carousel, " Martin drove into a patch of oil and slipped slightly. The elder Earnhardt, who had trailed within a few feet of Martin virtually throughout, darted inside and pulled off the decisive pass in his Chevrolet.
"Mark's car kicked out just enough to open the door for me, " said Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup champion who had been trying to win on one of NASCAR's serpentine speedway's since 1979.
Earnhardt, making his 36th road-course start, finished .32 seconds, about a car length, in front of runner-up Martin. Earnhardt emerged from his car in Victory Lane waving the steering wheel.
"I was as careful as I could be the last lap without giving Mark a chance to get back around me, " said Earnhardt, then 44. "I knew I was close to getting my first win on a road course and I didn't want to blow it after trying for so long."
Earnhardt was asked if he "could have passed Martin clean" had the leader not experienced trouble.
Replied Earnhardt, grinning: "Clean to me is not putting him out of the race track." Earnhardt paused, then added, "Now why did I say that?"
"Dale did a super job, " said Martin. "He ran well the whole race. He was in the right position at the end. I hit the grease and he didn't and went on."
I can't tell you how much accomplishing this on a road course means to this team, " said winning crew chief Andy Petree.
Pre-race co-favorite Rusty Wallace pitted on Lap 49 for tires, restarted back in the pack, was involved in a crash with Davey Jones and Dale Jarrett and finished 20th. Kyle Petty ran with the front pack much of the race, but fell back in his Pontiac with about 15 laps to go and wound up 28th.
The top 29 completed all 74 laps and, unusual for a road course, 38 of the 43 starters were running at the finish.
Earnhardt averaged 70.681 mph and earned $74,860 from the $1.3 million purse, unofficially largest at a road course in the United States up until then.
The triumph, which was to prove the only road course victory of Earnhardts career, came without his team owner Richard Childress in attendance. Childress was in Africa on safari.
"We're going to send Richard back to Africa next February so we can win the Daytona 500, too, " joked Earnhardt.
Now that he had conquered a road course, victory in the 500 classic in Florida was the lone major entry missing from Earnhardt's impressive motorsports resume. Dale the senior finally accomplished his Daytona 500 quest in 1998 after coming agonizingly ever-so-close several times.
A first-ballot NASCAR Hall Of Famer who became a legend in his own time, Earnhardt lost his life in a last-lap crash in the 500 of 2001 at Daytona.
In a bit of irony, the winding Infineon track is next on the Cup Series schedule, with the Toyota/Save Mart 350 scheduled this Sunday on the layout that now measures 1.99 miles.
Should Dale Junior make it two wins in a row for his Hendrick Motorsports team, it would be his first Cup victory on a road course, too. -30-