Earnhardt holds off Wallace, Jarrett in Brickyard 400 thriller
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2012
Dale Earnhardt came up a year late and $47,500 short.
Nevertheless, the NASCAR superstar was beyond jubilant on Aug. 5, 1995.
This's because he had just held off Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett for victory in a Brickyard 400 thriller at world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I cant describe how great this feels! a beaming Earnhardt said, his voice cracking with uncharacteristic emotion and a broad grin spreading beneath his distinctive moustache. Ive thought about winning at Indy all my life, and now Ive done it!
Earnhardts delight matched his disappointment of the previous year at the old 2.5-mile Indiana track, when a glaring error probably cost him a chance to win the Cup Series inaugural at The Brickyard.
Trying too hard to lead the first lap from the second starting position, Earnhardt scraped the fourth-turn wall, slightly damaging his No. 3 Chevrolet just enough to take it out of serious contention. He finished fifth as Jeff Gordon sped to the glory and honor of winning the first 400.
Earnhardt finished fifth and was nearly inconsolable.
The second Brickyard, staged 17 years ago, returns to mind as NASCARs top teams gather once more Back Home Again In Indiana for the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.
It seemed in '95 that Earnhardt and his rivals might have to wait another day to go racing. Rain was falling from dark, foreboding clouds.
Thousands of the estimated 300,000 fans who bought tickets had headed home. They came rushing back to the grandstands when NASCAR officials finally got the cars on the historic track at 5:25 p.m. EDT, about four hours later than planned.
The show was worth sprinting for, especially the final 25 laps following the event's only caution flag as Ford drivers Wallace and Jarrett tried to run down Earnhardt's Chevrolet.
However, the seven-time Cup champion wasn't to be denied.
In a battle of cars with primarily black paint schemes, Earnhardt flashed across the yard-wide strip of bricks forming the start/finish line .37 seconds ahead of runner-up Wallace and .904 seconds ahead of the third-place Jarrett.
"To win this race is absolutely great," said a breathless Earnhardt, who averaged 131.999 mph, a record for the two-year-old race. "This Richard Childress Racing team is hard to beat when we're right.
"I've never won the Daytona 500, our biggest race. The Brickyard is next to it, and we'll sure take it."
Childress was so excited about all he could say was "Wonderful! Wonderful!"
North Carolinian Earnhardt, a Kannapolis native who lived near Mooresville, started 13th and led one time for the final 28 laps. The victor got in front by beating rivals out of the pits from a green-flag stop on Lap 129.
"We beat 'em out, and that gave us track position when the only caution period came, " said Earnhardt.
The caution period was forced when Jeff Burton's Ford spun on the backstretch on Lap 132, right in front of Earnhardt, who said he just managed to miss the accident.
"The pit stops were great, and I can't say enough about that last one," Earnhardt declared of his Andy Petree-led crew. "That stop was the key to the race for us.
"Also, this was a brand-new car the guys in our shop built in three weeks especially for this race and I need to thank them, too.
"We figured this morning we could make some changes to the car to make it better, and they were right on.
"I needed to be out front as the race wound down, because my car worked better out there in clean air. It just wouldn't go as good when I was behind someone else.
"Plus, being in front enabled me to chose my line and not have to worry too much about what Rusty was going to do."
Wallace, who rallied from starting 24th to lead 22 of the race's 160 laps, blamed an accident in front of him on pit road during a green-flag stop on Lap 129 for preventing a stronger challenge.
"Two cars got together ahead of me exiting the pits and I had to slow to get around them, " Wallace said. "That put me behind, cost me track position and I couldn't get close enough to Dale to pressure him. He's especially tough when he's out front.
"Earnhardt had a wonderful car and I might not have beat him anyway. I congratulate him."
Said Jarrett, who moved up from 26th starting spot: "Chassis adjustments enabled us to go from 26 seconds behind to 15 in a green-flag run, then an awesome pit stop the last time got us out in front of a lot of people I'd been racing with.
"I thought I had something for Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty at the end, but catching those two here is very tough to do. I really tried. I think I had my left-front tire off in the grass in Turn 1 a couple times."
Bill Elliott, who led 47 laps in a Ford more than anyone finished fourth and fellow Thunderbird driver Mark Martin placed fifth.
Earnhardt was asked to comment on his big winners check of $565,000.
"It's not as much as Jeff Gordon won here last year ($613,000), he said, smiling. I guess I can't afford to go to Disneyland like he did. I'll have to go to Opryland."
Epilogue: Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 in his 20th try. He lost his life in a crash during the last lap of that race in 2001. Earnhardt accounted for seven Cup championships, tying Richard Petty for the record, and scored 76 victories during a career on the major circuit that began in 1979. He was posthumously inducted as one of five inaugural members of NASCARs Hall Of Fame in Charlotte in 2009.