Multicar wrecks overshadow exciting finish
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Jarrett's voice was hoarse and choked with emotion. He had just won a frantic shootout to end a 98-race drought and steal the spotlight from NASCAR's championship drivers.
Jarrett, a hardened veteran, could hardly believe what had happened Sunday during a crash-filled race at Talladega Superspeedway that shuffled the points standings and moved Tony Stewart back on top of the Nextel Cup leaderboard.
(unofficial through Oct. 2)
|1. (+4)||Tony Stewart||--|
|2. (+1)||Ryan Newman||-4|
|3. (-1)||Rusty Wallace||-76|
|4. (-3)||Jimmie Johnson||-82|
|5. (+1)||Greg Biffle||-98|
|6. (+2)||Carl Edwards||-100|
|7. (+2)||Matt Kenseth||-111|
|8. (-1)||Jeremy Mayfield||-112|
|9. (-5)||Mark Martin||-138|
"When you get to this point of your career, you're not exactly sure when that last victory is going to be there so you learn to cherish each one," Jarrett said. "It is very emotional. When I was coming down that backstretch, it was very emotional."
Jarrett, an also-ran most of the race, used a three-wide pass to challenge Tony Stewart for the lead on the final lap of a three-lap overtime shootout, then passed Stewart on the backstretch in the UAW-Ford 500 for his first victory since 2003 at the now-defunct North Carolina Speedway.
"Everybody was talking about the top 10 cars in the Chase," said crew chief Todd Parrott, "and the old faithful one here [Jarrett] kind of hanging around where he needed to hang around and to be around at the end and then to make the move that he did is pretty special.
"Me and this guy have worked a lot of magic together and we're not done."
Kyle Petty spun to bring out a caution before the leaders crossed the finish line, freezing the field. NASCAR then had to review tape to establish a final finishing order.
The final decision had Stewart second and in the points lead after the third of 10 Chase for the championship races.
"The big picture is what we were worried about today," Stewart said. "Even if we finished 10th and gained points, that was the big thing. I wish we could have won it, but if we couldn't, I was glad to see DJ do it."
Matt Kenseth finished third and Ryan Newman was fourth. Stewart holds a four-point advantage over Newman -- who originally thought he was the new points leader -- after a race that shuffled the Chase standings.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Jimmie Johnson's reputation and championship hopes were damaged after he was blamed for causing an early accident. Johnson, who started the day as the points leader, was involved in two accidents and dropped to fourth in the standings -- 98 points back.
Talladega is the wild card of NASCAR's 10-race championship hunt. Because drivers are forced to use horsepower-sapping restrictor plates, the cars all run in one tight pack and the slightest bobble is capable of wiping out half the field.
So it's the one track where the 10 Chase drivers started the race knowing their title hopes could be crippled before the day was over.
When the dust settled, at least five Chase drivers suffered some sort of accident-related damage and Johnson's track record at Talladega had taken another huge hit -- this time for a wreck he was involved in 20 laps into the race.
It was here that Johnson started a 25-car accident in April that led Dale Earnhardt Jr. to call him an "idiot" and start a rash of backlash against Johnson's perceived aggressive driving.
This time, Johnson ran into the back of race-leader Elliott Sadler's car, igniting a frightening eight-car accident that sent Michael Waltrip flipping down the track.
The drivers involved widely blamed Johnson for the accident.
"I'm really upset at Jimmie," Sadler snapped. "I guess he's trying to keep his streak alive -- he caused a big wreck here last year and he caused a big one again this year. Maybe that's his way of racing here at Talladega try to get rid of everybody so he can win the race."
But Johnson wasn't positive he was at fault. He believed he was pushed into Sadler when Earnhardt ran into the back of Johnson.
Either way, he knew his reputation was taking a hit.
"It's real easy to sit on your couch and point fingers and say 'So-and-so did something wrong,' " Johnson said. "But until you are out there in these cars, at these speeds, and seeing all the near-misses and what is really going on, it is not worth forming an opinion."
Johnson's accident ended the race for Chase driver Mark Martin, whose car was totaled. Martin came into the race fourth in the standings, but dropped to ninth after the race.
"I'm glad this is over with," he said. "I didn't even work up a sweat."
Johnson was in a second eight-car accident that started when Chase driver Ryan Newman hit Casey Mears. That accident damaged the cars of Chase drivers Rusty Wallace and Greg Biffle. Both were able to get back on the track to run for points, but Biffle knew it was fruitless.
"We'll just try to get as many points as we can and hope that Ryan makes a few more wrecks and we can gain some positions," Biffle cracked.
Stewart, meanwhile, climbed four spots in the standings after dropping out of the lead last week. He had spent seven weeks as the points leader before slipping to fifth coming into Talladega.
For Jarrett, it was a victory that proved he may be on track to turn his slumping program around. He was reunited with Parrott last week and the two proved they still have chemistry.
The two clicked from the start of their relationship, winning their very first race together, the 1996 Daytona 500.
They went on to win 26 races, including a second Daytona 500, and the 1999 championship. But Parrott left at the end of the 2002 season and Jarrett has run through seven crew chief changes since.
"`You know, driver-crew chief relationships, if you get six good years, that is longer than a lot of marriages," Jarrett said. "We do have a huge amount of respect for each other, and Todd has brought back a leadership that we haven't seen since he left, really."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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