NASCAR Winston Cup Pepsi 400 Report
5 July 1997DAYTONA BEACH, FL -- It may be the 5th of July but the elite touring group of NASCAR - the Winston Cup series - put on a show that ended in a volley of fireworks and a first time winner in victory lane. The race winner's as well as the winning car owner's names represent years of racing excellence. It was the team of Andretti and Yarborough working together that got the #98 RCA Ford its first victory in the 39th edition of the Pepsi 400.
John Andretti, working with the knowledge gained at Talladega, was on a mission to show the world that he could be a force in a Winston Cup race. Andretti started his 400-mile journey in the third position but he wouldn't stay there long and by lap number three Andretti was on the point, just as he would be for some 113 of the 160 circuits that made up today's race.
"I think it was about eight years ago when I was sitting in this seat after the 24 Hours (of Daytona)," said an excited John Andretti. "I hadn't even thought about driving a stock car. So it's real special to be here. I can tell you that, not only because of Daytona and all, and this is my first win, but because Tony Furr (crew chief) and Tony Santanicola (head engine builder and spotter), and Bob Fisher (engine builder) all sat in the office with (Cale Yarborough) and said this is the guy we want to drive our car. We've had a rough year, but I think we're out for wins, and we know that this place is good to us."
As mentioned, Andretti dominated the race, but had to clear one hurdle before he could take home the winner's paycheck of $109,525 - a one lap shootout.
The caution flew on lap 157 after Ricky Rudd cut a tire and went into the turn two wall. The track workers got the debris cleared in time for NASCAR to throw the green and white flags on lap 159. Andretti had none other than Dale Earnhardt lined up right behind him. Andretti, having learned a trick from Jeff Gordon, knew that you want to keep Dale Earnhardt as close to your rear bumper as you can in order to keep the 'Intimidator' from getting a run at you. As Andretti came to take the green and white flags he saw that Earnhardt was too far back for his liking and about came to a dead stop so that Earnhardt would have to close up on Andretti's bumper. Andretti brought the field to green at what looked to be a 45 mile an hour clip. When the pilot of the #98 RCA Ford got to the line he drilled it and the chase was on. Andretti was able to build a good cushion over Earnhardt by the time they got to the first turn.
That cushion got bigger when Jarrett caught up to Earnhardt and they got to racing each other in turns one and two. Terry Labonte saw this and swept past the 3 and 88 as they raced each other. From there things got a little wild with the field getting four and five wide at places. Andretti just kept it floored as the trio of Ward Burton, Mark Martin and Dick Trickle entered turn three - running in about the 6th through 8th positions - Burton down low - too low - Martin in the middle and Trickle up top. As Burton entered the turn he had to move his line up and at the same time it appeared that Trickle moved his line down. Martin, stuck in the middle, got sandwiched by the two cars and that is when it all broke loose.
Burton, Martin and Trickle swept up the speedway - their cars tearing apart. Those behind them just motored into the mess and when all was said and done there were nine cars caught up in the wreck. Besides Martin, Burton, and Trickle, the cars of Rick Mast, Derrike Cope, Lake Speed, Bobby Hamilton, Joe Nemechek, and Jerry Nadeau were all involved with several resembling little more than junk when the smoke cleared.
Andretti watched this all in his rear view mirror as he dashed towards the line with Terry Labonte in tow. Andretti got to the line a scant 0.029 seconds ahead of Labonte. "When I came to the checkered flag, I wasn't sure, if we'd had to go another lap whether I'd have been able to deal with (Labonte.) I'm glad we finished at that point. I'm sorry to see there was an accident, but that didn't affect the finish.
"A lot of times, people want to get down on me about how I get over-aggressive. Today, I drove within the capabilities of the car. I could drive it so hard. The car was so good, I could drive it anywhere. I could get aggressive with it and it would support me. I think that helped me win the race today. As far as winning all the other races - I have never encountered any series in my life that has been more difficult than Winston Cup. Every driver here is being paid, every crew chief. There's nobody here on a free ride. So it's tough. And then Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon have to step it up two notches and make it hell. So, it's tough, but it brings you to the realization that if you get there, you're just going to work as hard as they work. I'm just glad I won the race."
Terry Labonte who had been 'struggling' all week, managed to do what he's done in his last three starts here at Daytona - finish in the second spot. Labonte said after his run, "They were all trying to pass each other there and I got by 'em all on the outside -- all except Andretti. It was a good run for us. Considering we struggled all week, it was a real good run. We didn't qualify that well and coming out of here with a second place finish is awful good for us. That's our second straight second-place finish. We'd sure like to win one soon, but if we don't, second is the next best place to finish."
The driver that finished third was the 'king' of plate racing, Sterling Marlin. Marlin, who got behind a lap early in the race due to a cut tire, caught a break from Mark Martin. Martin let him get his lap back as the caution flew on lap 125 for the spinning car of Jeff Gordon. "I love this place," said Marlin. "These Firecracker 400s have been good for me. I've run second four times and ran third today. We won last year. I love this place."
Marlin then recognizing who made his third place finish possible said, "Mark Martin let me get my lap back. If he hadn't done that I couldn't have made it up. Mark and I worked really well together drafting on superspeedways. He's a great guy and I want to thank him."
"We ended up fourth," said Dale Earnhardt. "I did all I could do. I think Andretti was tough to pass no matter who was trying to pass him. We needed a little help but we never got it."
The drivers that rounded out the top-ten were, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Labonte.
The points battle took on a new shape after the last-lap wreck but Jeff Gordon was able to take Gatorade's $50,000 for leading the series points battle at the season halfway point. Wonder Boy almost had a taste of disaster today when his #24 DuPont Chevrolet smacked the wall coming out of turn two on lap 125. Gordon's car then spun across the track into a pack of oncoming traffic but never hit a thing. Gordon gathered it up and got back to the pits for tires, never losing a lap on the track. Team chatter seemed to indicate that either many tachometers had broken or that the pace car was circling the track at an unusually slow pace during this caution period. Gordon ended up finishing 21st and was able to keep the series points lead. Terry Labonte, with his second place finish pulled into second place in the series points - 54 points behind Gordon. And Mark Martin, who looked like he might be in a position to be in the series points lead, leaves Daytona third 110 points behind Gordon.
The Pepsi 400 took 2 hours 32 minutes 6 seconds to complete and held an average speed of 157.791 miles per hour. The caution flag flew a total of 4 times for 16 laps. There were 16 lead changes among 11 drivers during the event. Andretti gets the five bonus points for leading the most laps.
The next race will be the Jiffy Lube 300 to be run at Loudon New Hampshire on July 13th.
Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel