Commentary

Through rain, snow, sleet and … uh, tornadoes, Cup drivers deliver

We all know Carl Edwards didn't really win the Auto Club 500 in soggy Southern California. The real winner was Mother Nature. Ryan McGee highlights the top five weather moments in Cup history.

Updated: February 26, 2008, 1:21 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/Paul SancyaLeaving driver introductions under an umbrella is never a good sign, as was the case last August when Jeff Gordon won the pole at Michigan.

We interrupt this California rain delay to bring you … wait … never mind, now they are restarting the race … wait, hang on, it's raining again … no, now it's stopped … but the jet dryers melted the track sealer and now there's water seeping through a "weeper" in Turn 2 … so, OK, let's try this again.

We interrupt this California rain delay to bring you more rain delays … and snow delays … and tornadoes … and anything else sent down from the skies to make us believe that Mother Nature is constantly trying to find some way to exact her revenge … perhaps for all the carbon monoxide that rises from the racetrack every weekend.

Each and every NASCAR Sprint Cup event is affected in some way by the weather, whether it's praying for a cloud to cover one turn during a qualifying lap, falling air temperatures winding a chassis up tighter than a Victorian corset or a crew chief hunkered down over The Weather Channel trying to figure out how much longer the race will last.

But not all precipitous precipitation is created equal. And some weekends, atmospheric conditions aren't merely part of the story -- they are the story.

So grab a parka and someone get Jim Cantore on the phone, it's time to take a look at the top five weather-beaten moments in NASCAR's modern era.

1. Come Hell or High Sewage
Interstate Batteries 500, Texas, April 6, 1997

NASCAR first visited the Texas Motor Speedway in spring 1997, but there was nothing springy about it. There were already plenty of problems caused by the not-yet-ready facility, from sudden drops in electrical power to a design flaw that turned Turn 4 into a salvage yard.

But the biggest issues were forced upon the people by El Niño, which threw everything short of a plague of locusts at the Great American Speedway. Temperatures hovered in the 40s while a Texas-sized wind rolled in off the northern plains to chill everyone to the bone and at one point created a tornado that fans could see dancing along the highway behind the backstretch. A week's worth of rain not only slowed the last-minute construction touch-ups but turned Bruton Smith's much-ballyhooed "sunken garage" into a swimming pool, topped only by the flooding in the pedestrian and vehicle tunnels. On top of that, the saturated ground created "weepers" from Turn 4 all the way into Turn 1 and at one point a broken sewer line sent a trickle of, ahem, brown water through one section of the grandstands.

The good news: The race did happen on time, won by self-proclaimed "survivor of it all" Jeff Burton.

2. The Forecast Calls for Dave
Richmond 400, Feb. 21, 1982

In the 1970s, Dave Marcis tried driving for other people and had some success at it -- he finished second in points in 1975 -- but in '79, the pride of Wausau, Wis., decided to get back to his driver-owner roots and become an independent racer once again. But life on a budget was tough, and -- now that he was building his own cars and engines -- so was finding Victory Lane.

On a drearily cold day at Richmond (Va.) Fairgrounds Raceway, Marcis was wing-tipping his way to another solid nonwin when the caution came out on Lap 245 of the scheduled 400. Recalls Dave a quarter century later: "Everybody was coming into the pits when my crew chief, Jerry Darling, started yelling, 'Stay out! Stay out!' I did, and quite honestly, I am still surprised that I was the only car that did."

Marcis inherited the lead under yellow and cruised around for five laps. Lap 1 brought a sprinkle. Lap 2 brought rain. By Lap 3, it was a genuine downpour. Lap 5 brought the red flag. Soon thereafter, the race was called and 40-year-old Marcis had his first win in six years and the fifth and final victory of a career that went on to last 20 more years.

3. The Iditarod 300
New Hampshire 300, Loudon, Nov. 23, 2001

Nobody wanted to be in Loudon, N.H., for this 300-lap race the Friday after Thanksgiving, but thanks to Osama bin Laden, they were. The race originally had been scheduled for Sept. 16, 2001, but it was postponed after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. NASCAR officials looked at a stack of rescheduling possibilities, including a midweek run to New England squeezed in between Charlotte and Martinsville, but team logistics and an airtight Cup calendar wouldn't let it happen.

So, amid endless jokes about needing snow tires to run the race, 43 Cup teams took the green flag under a bone-chillingly clear New England sky and temperatures that hovered in the mid-30s but felt more like 20-something.

"The roads into the track had snow banks on either side," recalls Greg Zipadelli, a Northeast native and Tony Stewart's crew chief. "All these Southerners and Californians were wrapped up like Eskimos. They were afraid the engines would blow up and the tires wouldn't stick to the track."

The weather didn't hurt the crowd, as fans put down their turkey legs long enough to pack the stands, and as it turned out, two Californians put on a show. Jeff Gordon, who already had clinched the Cup title, duked it out with Robby Gordon, who used his chrome horn to shove the No. 24 Chevy out of the way and take the lead and the win. Gordon then tagged Gordon under the yellow, which, for a moment at least, made everyone forget that their nostrils were frozen shut.

4. Million-Dollar Rain
Southern 500, Darlington, Sept. 6, 1992

Davey Allison rolled into the Track Too Tough To Tame battered by a rash of rough wrecks and scarred by the death of his brother Clifford, but he was still in the thick of the points chase, thanks to four wins. Among those victories were wins in the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 at Talladega, meaning a win in the Southern 500 would make Allison the second man to win the Winston Million cash bonus.

Davey started the day sixth and led three times for 72 laps, but he pitted with the other leaders late in the day despite threatening skies. Darrell Waltrip, who had gotten great fuel mileage all day, chose to pull a Dave Marcis and stayed out, inheriting the lead. Soon the rains came, pushed into the area by one of the most violent series of tropical storms in South Carolina history. The race was called after two hours, a full 69 laps short of the scheduled 367. As the cars sat on pit road waiting on the final call from race control, ESPN cameras walked over to DW as he sat in his self-owned No. 17 Chevy, where he proclaimed, "Looks like a million dollar's worth of rain, doesn't it?"

It was a mere $66,000 rain for Waltrip, who earned his 84th and final career victory and ended a career 0-for-19 streak in the Southern 500 … er, we mean the Southern 407.068.

5. The 72 Hours of Michigan
3M Performance 400, Michigan, Aug. 21, 2007

Just last year, on California's sister track in Michigan, what is typically a clean, quick event served up more false starts than a Pop Warner offensive line.

Sunday was a total washout, with so much green on the radar that the normally overly patient NASCAR officials announced a one-day postponement early enough that the 145,000 in attendance still had time to find somewhere in the Irish Hills to have dinner.

On Monday, it was more of the same and another delay.

On Tuesday morning, drivers woke to the promise of rising temperatures and a forecast of clearing skies. But when the green flag finally fell, the Michigan fog was so dense that the spotters and remaining 40,000 fans (the message boards were jammed with fans saying, "I know I'm going to get fired for calling in sick, but what the hell") couldn't see the cars as they disappeared into Turn 1. Nine laps later, the red flag was shown. "Holy crap," Kevin Harvick said over the radio as the cars came down pit road. "Can we just throw the checkers now and go home?"

Thirty-two minutes later, the race resumed under the forecast clearing skies and Kurt Busch survived a green-white-checkered finish to hold off Martin Truex Jr. "Of course we had to run three extra laps," Busch said one week later. "Even at the end, the racing gods didn't want us to leave."

Actually, Kurt, there was only one racing god in charge that day, and her name was Mother Nature.

Honorable Meteorological Mentions -- 1999, Jeff Burton wins '99 TranSouth Financial 500 after a rain dance; 2001, first-lap rain-slicked wreck and do-over in the All-Star Race; 2003, Goodyear pulls out its never-used rain tires at Watkins Glen but they remain never used; 2003, Mikey Waltrip's second Daytona 500 win comes in the rain-abbreviated Daytona 272.5; 2006, Bristol Busch Series race is red-flagged for a snowfall; 2008, uh, duh, the never-ending Auto Club 500 at California!

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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