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Sunday, April 29
Wallace earns first victory of 2001
FONTANA, Calif. The moment Rusty Wallace drove past the
checkered flag on Sunday, he began thinking about longtime friend
He celebrated what would have been Earnhardt's 50th birthday by
taking a flag-waving victory lap following his dominating
performance in the NAPA Auto Parts 500.
After holding off two-time California Speedway winner Jeff
Gordon in a 19-lap shootout at the end of the 250-lap event,
Wallace stopped across from his pit and waited while one of his
Penske Racing South crewmen brought out a flag, bearing Earnhardt's
colors and his famed No. 3.
"He was such a good friend of mine. I always wanted to do
something special for Dale when he lost his life," Wallace said of
his former racing rival and hunting partner, who was killed in a
crash Feb. 18 in the Daytona 500. "We had the flag all put
together at Rockingham (the week after Daytona).
"My plan was to ride around with the flag and have (Earnhardt's
car owner) Richard Childress help me with it at Rockingham because
I really thought I was going to win the race."
Wallace finished seventh in that race and wound up postponing
the tribute to Earnhardt until Sunday's race, the 10th of the
Wallace drove slowly around the 2-mile oval, holding the flag
high outside the driver's side window of his No. 2 Ford as many in
the crowd of about 120,000 stood and cheered both the race winner
and the memory of Earnhardt.
"The doggone thing was so big and so heavy that I couldn't run
but about 25 miles an hour," Wallace said, laughing. "It was
ready to blow out of my hand, so that was the reason for such a
Wallace's 54th career win came in the 10th race of the 2001
season and was his first since last Aug. 26 in Bristol, Tenn.
The winner, who averaged 143.118 mph, started 19th in the 43-car
field and took most of the first half of the race to move into
contention. Once Wallace took the lead for the first time on lap
151, he was able to stay at or near the front, leading 95 of the
final 99 laps, including the final 47.
Wallace had built a lead of nearly four seconds -- nearly a full
straightaway -- and appeared on the way to a runaway victory before a crash
involving Ward Burton and Mark Martin brought out the sixth and
final caution flag of the race on lap 224.
Burton, somewhat disoriented after getting out of his battered
car, was taken by helicopter to a hospital for a CT scan. He also
had a small cut on his chin.
Burton spent the night at Loma Linda Medical Center after being diagnosed with a concussion, but was released Monday. He was wearing the Simpson Decelerator, designed to help reduce the violent head whip that drivers experience in hard crashes.
When the green flag waved for the final restart on lap 232,
Gordon's Chevrolet was tucked right behind Wallace's Taurus and the
two quickly moved away from the rest of the pack.
Gordon, who won two of the four previous Winston Cup races here,
tried hard to catch the leader but never got closer than about two
car-lengths before crossing the finish line 0.270 seconds -- about
four car-lengths -- behind.
"Once I got to two car-lengths, it seemed like my car just
stopped," Gordon said. "That's as close as I could get to him.
"The only way I was going to get him was if he made a big, big
mistake, and a guy like Rusty doesn't do that. He deserved to win.
He had the fastest car at the end."
Wallace said he was very aware of Gordon's No. 24 looming in his
mirrors over those final laps.
"When you see Jeff behind you, you're always worried,
especially when he's working the high lane, the low lane, all
over," Wallace said. "I didn't know if he had something else for
us at the end."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on at the end for a strong third-place
finish -- his best showing since finishing second in Daytona.
"I didn't think about it being my dad's 50th birthday until I
heard something on the P.A.," he said. "It felt really good,
especially after we had a good showing and finally got to running
the way we like to. That moved us up to 10th place in the season
Tony Stewart wound up fourth, followed by defending race winner
Jeremy Mayfield, Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Jerry Nadeau and
Series leader Dale Jarrett finished 24th after losing a cylinder
late in the race. Combined with Gordon's runner-up finish, that cut
Jarrett's points lead from 145 to 66 after 10 of 36 races.
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|Rusty Wallace carried a flag in honor of Dale Earnhardt, who would have turned 50 on Sunday, on his victory lap.|