The Callahan Report: Rusty Wallace Dominates/Jeff Burton Wins at Martinsville
30 September 1997MARTINSVILLE, VA: Mother Nature made us wait an extra day to see the Hanes 500 at Martinsville Speedway. It didn't matter. NASCAR officials got everyone's Hanes "in a bunch" when they black flagged Rusty Wallace on the final restart. The eventual race winner was Jeff Burton.
The win was Burton's third victory of the season. Burton has been ill for the past three weeks and is still not at 100 percent. He still has some dizziness from his illness. After 500 laps at Martinsville, forty-one other NASCAR drivers know how Burton has felt the past few weeks. Burton has been strong all year. He is a deserving winner. Burton was closing fast on Wallace as the black flag waved. The patient fans who missed work to witness the race at Martinsville deserved to see a fight to the finish. Instead, they were robbed. NASCAR official closed the curtain early on the final act of the short track show.
Burton said, "Rusty was good on short runs. To say that we could have beaten him would be a ridiculous statement. I think we could have run back to him, but what would have happened then, I have no idea." Rusty Wallace kept the Miller Lite/Penske South Ford in front for more laps than any other driver. In all, Wallace lead 225 laps. Wallace had been warned about jumping the restart on two previous occasions. With 26 laps to go, the green flag waved for the last time. Wallace took off as he had all day. His advantage was not significant. NASCAR passed the word to Wallace's crew. He came into the pits with 24 laps to go. When Wallace returned to action, he was in fifteenth place. It was a rare "bad call" by the best racing officials in the world.
The call surprised everyone. Even Burton thought the call was borderline. No one was more disappointed than Wallace, obviously. He said, "They rule it, and they can do what they want. I'm going to talk to them a little bit about it, because I've got a feeling who it was. The guy has had a grudge for me for a long time, and I'm going to go talk to him. This is ridiculous. I've never seen nothing like it."
Wallace continued, "I pleaded with them to clean the race track and they wouldn't. Oil dry was everywhere and you've got to get going. The lapped cars were inside of me trying to get their lap back with 15 or 18 to go." Wallace concluded, "I took off like I normally do. I don't agree with it. I think it was a terrible technicality and a tough deal for our race team."
The race was not over with Wallace's black flag. Bobby Hamilton's crew kept the STP Pontiac near the front all day with superior pit work. Hamilton raced side by side with Burton for several laps at the end. The racing was clean and exciting. Hamilton finally gave way to Burton. The door to door racing took its toll on Hamilton's well used left side tires (180 laps). Dale Earnhardt moved around Hamilton to take second. Hamilton came across the line in third place.
Winston Cup points leader, Jeff Gordon, added to his lead by virtue of his fourth place finish. His closest rival in the points chase, Mark Martin, was struggling with his eleventh place finish. Gordon was closely pursued by Bill Elliott. Awesome Bill finished fifth in the McDonald's Thunderbird.
The balance of manufacturers in the top ten was spread evenly. There were four Fords (including the race winner), four Chevys, and two Pontiacs. Chevrolet teams have been lobbying for several weeks to "level the playing field." The Chevy teams said that Ford had dominated the season. They pointed out that only one Chevy team has visited victory lane this year. NASCAR listened. The rules makers announced this week that Chevrolets will be allowed to add a quarter of an inch to their rear spoilers beginning this weekend at Charlotte.
The Chevy teams may be sorry their wish was granted. The Chevy team they used as their example (only one Chevy visiting victory lane) was Jeff Gordon. The driver of the Dupont Chevy has ten victories in 1997. He will also be allowed to add to his rear spoiler for the five remaining races. The extra height on the rear spoiler is designed to give the Chevys more downforce on long green flag runs. The new rule just may allow Jeff Gordon to breeze all the way to his second Winston Cup title.