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Sunday, May 29, 2005
Wreck leaves Waltrip dumbfounded

Associated Press

CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from a lap down to get back in the top 10, then crashed himself and teammate Michael Waltrip with a crucial mistake Sunday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
Michael Waltrip

As the two raced down the frontstretch in the Coca-Cola 600, Junior tapped Waltrip from behind, triggering a five-car wreck that took him, Waltrip, Matt Kenseth and Terry Labonte out of contention. Labonte, a two-time Nextel Cup champ, was taken to the hospital for observation, but the track reported that he was awake and alert.

Ryan Newman also was involved, but his crew repaired his Dodge and he was able to continue.

"I don't know what happened," Waltrip said in measured tones. "I'm trying to figure it out. I was running with the 8 car and I think he got into me."

Tony Eury Sr., director of competition at Dale Earnhardt Inc., was Earnhardt's crew chief until this season, and he tried in vain to control his frustration with watching two of his cars taken out in the same wreck.

"I don't know what his problem is with Michael, but it will be fixed tomorrow, I guarantee it," Eury said.

Kenseth blamed the incident partly on the racing conditions. With the newly ground track providing a challenge to the drivers for most over the weekend, passing was extremely difficult.

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Kenseth said. "It's impossible to pass. I mean, unless a miracle happens, the fastest car won't win the race. Wherever you are, that's where you'd run."

Earnhardt returned less than 20 laps later after repairs, while the others except for Newman were done for the night.

And DEI wasn't the only team to lose two cars in the same crash. Sterling Marlin and Casey Mears, teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing, slammed together in Turn 2 on lap 217, with Marlin relegated to 39th because he couldn't continue.

Martin Truex Jr., driving the third Chevrolet for DEI, was responsible for starting this incident, sliding up into Mears and forcing him into a spin. As Marlin tried to go to the bottom of the track, Mears slid down and knocked Marlin into the wall.

On his pit box, team owner Chip Ganassi could only hold his head in his hands.

"Martin Truex just tried to throw it in too hard," Mears said. "He got a two-for-one deal because he got Sterling, too. I'm OK, but I'm a little upset because it was so stupid. I don't understand when something like that happens."

Truex was able to drive away.

Then in the final 20 laps, Brian Vickers bumped Bill Elliott from behind – eerily similar to the Earnhardt-Waltrip incident – and started another big wreck on the frontstretch. Jeff Gordon, Vickers' teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, couldn't avoid the melee, and neither could Mark Martin.

"Brian Vickers had the best car, but unfortunately, he ran out of patience a little bit there," Gordon said. "He's my teammate, I love him to death and he's doing such a great job. I hate it for him, I know he didn't want it to end that way."

Gordon made a couple of more laps before pulling into the garage, and he finished one spot ahead of Vickers in 29th. Martin got back on the track after losing one lap and was running at the finish for the 34th consecutive race, the longest streak on the circuit.

"I messed up and I got impatient," Vickers said. "That was my fault. I messed up. We had an awesome car, we had a car to win. I messed up there, and I'm sorry."

Busch's woes continue
Kurt Busch's chance to snap a two-race slump ended early in the Coca-Cola 600.

The defending Nextel Cup champ spun in Turn 2 on the ninth lap Sunday night and backed into the wall, then took his Ford to the garage. He wasn't sure what happened, but speculated that fluid leaking from another car might have been a factor.

Television replays from Sterling Marlin's in-car camera – he was trailing Busch – showed something spraying the lens.

"It just snapped around on me real quick," Busch said. "I don't know if there was fluid on the track or not. There was a bunch on the windshield and it just came around. Obviously, I was in no hurry. It's 600 miles."

Finishes of 37th and 17th the past two weeks dropped him from second to fifth in the standings, and Busch qualified 35th for the 600. He hardly had time to figure out how his Ford was going to run before he crashed.

Because the NASCAR point system rewards consistency, teams normally fix their torn up cars and make as many laps as possible, figuring even one position gained is worth it. But Busch wasn't looking forward to being well off the pace and possibly being in the way.

"That's one thing we need to work on with this point system is when you're back 36th or worse in the finishing order, there's no reason to go and take a damaged car back out there and be 4 seconds off the pace," he said. "It's going to be tough to get back out and be competitive, and we're going to finish in the 40s somewhere."

He eventually returned after losing 133 laps and had more trouble, crashing again in Turn 1 to finally end his night. Busch finished last.

Birthday wishes
Ken Schrader had quite a 50th birthday.

First, his crew surprised him with a homemade "wheelchair" after the drivers' meeting, fastening two pieces of a used tire around a plastic chair. Schrader walked up just as truck driver Jeff Miles lowered the back liftgate to unveil the present, and he momentarily stopped and stared.

A fan yelled for Schrader to sit down in it, but that was going to happen.

"No!" he shouted with a big smile.

Car owner Beth Ann Morgenthau gave Schrader a big hug, and balloons and a sign wishing him a happy birthday adorned the chair.

"For me, it's really just another day," Schrader said. "It's a milestone I can't do anything about, and I don't think it's the kind of thing you want to miss. You know, the old, 'Oh, man, hate that happened the day before he turned 50,' and everybody talks about you in the past tense."

Later, he got an even better present when he led for the fourth time this season. Schrader was one of several drivers who stayed out during a caution for debris on lap 115, and he stayed out front briefly when the field took the green.

It didn't last, as 48-year-old Terry Labonte moved into the lead, the first race he's led during his part-time schedule this season.

Picture perfect
The gifts just keep coming for retiring drivers Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.

At the drivers' meeting, Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler saluted them with framed photos of the trips to Victory Lane in the Coca-Cola 600. Martin won in 2002, and Wallace came home first in 1990.

"This is the last Coca-Cola 600 for two great drivers, and we have something that we want to commemorate this day with, since both of you can't win," Wheeler said.

He particularly liked the picture of Martin, calling it one of the best he's ever seen. Martin agreed.

"I look pretty happy right there," Martin said.

First waves green
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist waved the green at the start, then spent about 30 laps watching from the flagstand.

A native of Tennessee, he has been to several races, although this was his first time at the track just north of Charlotte. Frist spent time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch while in town, and praised NASCAR for its commitment to families.

"We do follow NASCAR on Capitol Hill," Frist said. "Right now, because of the intensity of the competition, because of the appeal with the broadest range of people of any sport in America today, because of those values of America and American spirit are so prominently on display, I'll bet that NASCAR is the No. 1 most followed sport by political figures today on Capitol Hill."

He also enjoyed his time away from Washington, where the Senate worked hard in the past several days for a compromise on President Bush's judicial nominees.

"Tonight, we'll be seeing 43 drivers and cars going round and round and round for 600 miles to get to a finish," Frist said. "In Washington, D.C., I see too many politicians, many of my colleagues, going round and round and round to get to nowhere."

Frist also drew some chuckles in a brief interview session with reporters when he referred to Tennessee's lone Cup driver as Sterling Martin, instead of Marlin.