The Callahan Report: John Andretti Gets First NASCAR Victory
7 July 1997DAYTONA BEACH, FL: John Andretti was in position to win his first NASCAR event last year. He was bumped and passed on the last lap. Today, his car was much more powerful. He out sprinted the biggest stars in the sport to win on the high banks of this famed Daytona, USA Speedway.
The rumors have been flying lately about John Andretti. The rumors are not about how fast he is on super speedways. The rumors are of what he will be doing next year as he will be out of a ride in NASCAR's top series. Andretti put a big hush on those rumors today. The driver of the RCA sponsored/Cale Yarborough owned Ford Thunderbird led the most laps on his way to dominating the Pepsi 400. Starting from the third spot, Andretti was the car to beat. He was the leader by the third lap and powered his way to the front after each pit stop.
As powerful as Andretti was, the win was in question late in the show. With five laps remaining, all hell broke loose in the middle of the pack. Ricky Rudd lost the back end going into turn one. Rudd slammed the outside wall hard. Also collected in the crash were Michael Waltrip, Hut Stricklin, and Morgan Shepherd. The leaders raced back to the flag with Andretti leading the way. After a quick cleanup, the green flag and white flags flew together. Andretti out dueled all competitors but the one lap dash to the checkered flag resulted in the biggest crash of the race.
Ward Burton went low into the grass trying to make a desperate pass. Cars were five wide going down the backstretch. Burton came back up the track into the path of Mark Martin. Both cars continued to the wall collecting Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope, and Bobby Hamilton. Burton was injured in the crash (no details at the time of publishing).
Prior to the late round of crashes, it looked as if the unlucky streak of Dale Earnhardt was about to end. With fifteen laps to go, Earnhardt picked up spots and closed quickly on Andretti. The intimidating number 3 tucked tightly to the back of the RCA car. The two battled the rest of the way. Dale Jarrett also joined the battle followed by Trickle and Martin. After Martin and Trickle were taken out in the last lap disaster, Terry Labonte and Sterling Marlin took advantage of the "battle of the Dales". Labonte ended up finishing second, followed by Marlin, Jarrett and Earnhardt.
After seeing the forecast of overcast skies, Andretti's RCA team made a shock change at the last minute. The change worked. He easily led the pack throughout the race. A tearful Andretti said "Anyone could have driven this car today". He said his biggest concern was Terry Labonte making a late charge as Earnhardt and Jarrett began racing each other. The ever consistent Labonte moved to second in the series points. Jeff Gordon remains the points leader. Martin was in position to take the points lead until the last lap crash sent him to third in the points championship race.
Today's show was typical NASCAR racing. The green flag fell and the racing was side by side for several laps, then settled down with Andretti leading. The race was caution free until the 34th lap. Jimmy Spencer spun after being tapped by Mike Skinner heading down the backstretch. Everyone behind him hit the brakes. Chad Little got the worst of the incident as he shortened the John Deere car by a couple feet and did some "plowing" in the infield grass. Little was uninjured but out of the race. New faces were showing speed during the race. Joining Andretti in the top ten were names like Ward Burton,, Michael Waltrip, Hut Stricklin, and Ken Schrader. The driver of the Skoal car, Schrader looked better than he had in quite some time, running a high line and passing cars seemingly at will.
Green flag stops show the impact of total teamwork. There was an exciting series of green flag stops. After the dust settled and all leaders had pitted, Michael Waltrip was the leader with Andretti in second, followed by Rusty Wallace. Jeff Gordon and Ward Burton rounded out the top five at the mid race point.
Ken Schrader brought out the second caution of the day. The Skoal car cut a right front tire causing Schrader to brush the turn three wall. He brought it in for some quick body work and returned to the track. He stayed on the lead lap.
The crowd cheered when Jeff Gordon hit the wall and spun a few laps into a late race restart. The incident brought out the third caution of the day. Gordon was running sixth at the time of the crash. Gordon did not lose a lap but dropped to 34th after the rainbow crew banged out the sheet metal. Gordon pitted three times to correct the car on the insuing yellow flag. Gordon lost the back end coming out of turn two. He brushed the wall three times and then spun into the grass. Derrike Cope also spun trying to aviod the melee.
When the racing resumed, Andretti was running in second spot but fourth on the track. He quickly passed the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Jimmy Spencer. He set his sights on leader Mark Martin and chased him down. Andretti tried several times to go low on Martin but was unable to make the pass. Martin, with his tires wearing out finally gave way to Andretti. Andretti teamed up with Bill Elliott to make the pass.
A record was set before the green flag dropped at the Pepsi 400. The temperature was 97 degrees at race time. The hottest ever for the running of the annual Indepence Day weekend event.
Gary Leffler, the jack man for the Pennzoil team, sustained a small cut on his right ankle. The team iced the injury. Leffler was sent for x-rays and was done for the day.
Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel