50 Years of nascar racing ~ The Monster Is Coming! (Post 57)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
In a sport where there are very few absolutes, few fans will argue that Dover's notorious Monster Mile is the toughest track on the circuit. The Monster will gobble up cars, wear out drivers, and dash their dreams in the blink of an eye, without so much as a guilty belch. Not all drivers enjoy their forays to Dover Downs; some outright despise the place, and Dale Earnhardt once snidely referred to running on the concrete surface of the track as "Racing on the sidewalks."(With all due apologies to Mr. Earnhardt, having driven a Winston Cup car at Dover in a driving school, I have to disagree with his assessment. If racing on the sidewalks was that much fun I'd have never quit skateboarding, though I'll agree the track sure does grab your attention.)
Dover Downs held their first race in NASCAR's top division on July 6th, 1969. The facility had originally been built as a horse racing track, and that horse track still exists in the infield. More recently, a slot machine casino has been added to the track for those whose taste in gambling runs a bit more sedate than trying to pass Dale Earnhardt going into turn one. Through the first few years of its existence, Dover seemed to be holding a benefit race for Richard Petty and Bobby Allison and both drivers share a record seven wins at the track. In a quirk of statistics, Richard Petty never won a Winston Cup title since the track opened without finishing second or better in at least one Dover race, and in fact he has won at the track in four of five of his championship years in the Winston Cup era.
The Monster gave the front runners a vivid lesson in its appetite for fast cars in May of 1976. Rookie Ricky Rudd lost control on the high banks and spun. The accident wound up collecting Benny Parsons, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker. Parsons was forced to pit five times under yellow to have repairs made to his Chevy, and the results were nothing to write home about. The car was all torn up. Still Benny was able to patiently work his way to the front, while other front runners like Darrell Waltrip suffered mechanical failures, and the Petty crew just couldn't get their car up to speed. In an incident that shows how much NASCAR has changed, at one point Cale Yarborough was held at the end of pit road and lost a lap. His enraged crew chief Herb Nab stormed down to "discuss things" with the NASCAR official involved and wound up popping him one in the mouth. After the race, NASCAR decided Herb hadn't hit him hard enough to deserve a fine. Nowadays such an action would earn an individual a one way ticket on the space shuttle. Back out on the track, Benny Parsons drove his rambling wreck back into the lead and held on to beat David Pearson, who had also been involved in the melee, by over 25 seconds. After the race, an exhausted Parsons had to be helped from his car.
The spring race at Dover in 1981 brought two first time winners to victory lane, amidst a hail of protests. Jody Ridley won his first (and only) Winston Cup race that day, but perhaps more importantly, it remains the only win to date for Junie Donlavey as a car owner, in a career that started in 1950 and has included close to 750 starts to date. The win was marred by a flap over scoring, with Bobby Allison and his car owner Harry Ranier loudly protesting that they had actually been a half lap ahead of Ridley, not behind. NASCAR sheepishly admitted there had been confusion in the scoring charts that day, but it had seemed irrelevant at the time as Neil Bonnett was two laps up on the field. Bonnett lost an engine however and suddenly the scoring confusion concerned the leaders. After reviewing the situation, NASCAR decided to the best of their knowledge Ridley had won. As tight as the points battle was between Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison that year, the mix up at Dover remained a source of controversy throughout the rest of the season.
While not quite as impressive as his comeback at Talladega in '85, Bill Elliott did manage a "minor miracle" at Dover in the spring of 1988. Elliott seemed to have the set up on his car down that day, and was racing up front through much of the early parts of the event along with his main competition in the points chase that year, and a surprisingly strong Morgan Shepherd, substitute driving for Harry Gant who had been injured at that year's World 600. Disaster struck the nine team on lap 224 in the form of a flat tire and when Elliott returned to the track, he was down almost two laps. Like a runaway train, Elliott started marching through the field, looking like the Awesome Bill of old, and on lap 462, he took the lead from Shepherd and cruised on to a 21-second victory. In retrospect, that effort was even more important than a mere race win. Had Elliott indeed finished two laps off the pace that he would have lost the 1988 Winston Cup championship to Rusty Wallace.
It's hard to consider Dale Earnhardt an underdog at any track he ran at in the late eighties, but Dover had not been good to Dale. He didn't score his first victory there until 1989, a decade into his career that already included three championships. Though he dominated the event, leading 456 of 500 laps the win was not without drama. Kenny Schrader was in second as the race headed for the crossed flags signifying the half way point. There was a 10,000 dollar bonus for leading at halfway, and Kenny decided he'd like to have that. In a move he later claimed he had learned watching Earnhardt, Schrader put a bumper to the black three car and shoved him out of the way. Earnhardt was clearly annoyed by the move and said after the race, "I've got a memory like an elephant. Somewhere down the road I just might slip and get into him. (Schrader)" Earnhardt was able to retake the lead on the next lap, and in the end, held off a determined charge from Mark Martin who was running hells bells to catch him, hanging on for a .51-second gap at the checkers and a $59,350 pay day, which buys a lot of peanuts.
The tables were turned at the Dover race in the spring of '91. That day Kenny Schrader decided to try a new strategy. He had a reputation for getting up front early, getting into the wall and getting to go home early. Instead, that day he played a conservative strategy and let the Monster deal with the hard chargers. Earnhardt was among those who suffered the Beast's wrath. After dominating the first half of the race, he suffered a flat tire that forced an unscheduled pit stop. When Dale returned to the track the leader, Harry Gant, was right behind him and about to put him a lap down. Gant clearly wanted to get Earnhardt a lap down to take him out of contention for the win, and Earnhardt just as clearly didn't want to go a lap down. The two raced side by side for seven laps, in a hoot and holler duel that had more close calls than a drunken virgin at a semester's worth of frat parties. Finally, a caution flag kept Dale from going down a lap and Dale methodically worked his way back to the front, reassuming the lead on lap 406. Running in second place was one Kenny Schrader, a driver Dale had said he had some unfinished business with back in '89. On lap 423 Schrader dove low and got around Dale, then drove his heart out for the rest of the race to try to keep Dale from paying back that favor. Kenny went on to beat Earnhardt by about 1.2 seconds, and it remains to date his last Winston Cup victory.
Dover was a bit kinder to Dale in the spring race of 1993, though the track lived up to its monstrous reputation that day, with the racing interrupted 14 times for a total of 78 laps. 12 drivers who started the day with high hopes went home with trashed race cars instead. Rookie Jeff Gordon was involved in an early incident and returned to the fray in a battered race car, cruising around the apron of the track for points. Unfortunately, he managed to tangle with Darrell Waltrip on lap 418 of the race, and despite the mutual admiration both drivers claim to have for one another these days, some harsh words were exchanged after the race between DW and Wonder Boy. Geoff Bodine, who was making one of his first starts as car owner of the 7 team he had purchased after Alan Kulwicki's tragic demise, was also given a lesson in the economics of racing, as in how much it costs to replace a totaled race car. Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace were Dale Earnhardt's main competition for the title, and while Dale had taken command of the race in the later stages, both Mark and Rusty were running well. Wallace was still recovering from the broken wrist he had suffered a little over a month before, after a last lap tangle with Earnhardt at Talladega, but had worked his way to second, while Martin was third. Mark tried to go under Rusty to take that position and his car got bad loose. Hard contact was made and Rusty slammed the wall, while Mark's car suffered only minor damage. The points Rusty lost that day, winding up in 21st rather than second, were more than the margin he lost that year's title chase to eventual Dover race winner Dale Earnhardt that day.
While I can't say who'll win this weekend's race at Dover, I can say this much. During the event, there will be crew chiefs tearing their hair out trying to find the set up. In the course of 400 laps, more than one strong race car will wind up being shoveled into the back of the transporter for a final ride to the dump. And whatever driver claims the trophy and big check is going to have worked hard to wrestle a win away from the Monster.
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