It's always fun to play what-if...
Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt were not exactly passing the mashed potatoes to each other every Thanksgiving. Each man raced hard. They raced even harder when around one another. Bodine said Earnhardt had him sideways three times in the Tri-Oval during Saturday’s Speedweeks Busch Series event. Come Sunday’s 500 they had the two fastest cars. The pair dueled for the lead at times and drafted and waited during other points of the race. The slugfest to decide the race’s winner surely awaited and a classic, memorable finish was coming. A long green flag run in the second half timed out to be close on fuel. With the pair nose-to-tail, Earnhardt lifted off the throttle, pulled low in turn four and headed to pit road for a splash of fuel with just three laps remaining. His engine failed on pit exit. Bodine was on a gas saving strategy, gambled, and won. The winning battle that most expected never materialized.
What if Earnhardt did not have to pit for fuel and a final-lap shootout occurred? Third place Terry Labonte was going to move up two positions.
Three cars were the class of the field. Darrell Waltrip, Bobby, and Davey Allison were at or near the front all day. Richard Petty’s frightening crash just past halfway and the dramatic finish between the Allisons are what people remember from this day. Late in the race the lead draft was forming to settle a winner. Passing was at a premium with this being the first 500 using restrictor plates. But the strong cars found their way to the front. Waltrip, in sight of the lead but developing an engine problem, began dropping back in the pack. A view he had not seen for the first 450 miles.
What if Waltrip did not suffer his engine troubles? I suspect the long-awaited 1989 winner could have broken up the Allison family celebration.
Derrike Cope pulled off one of the biggest NASCAR upsets with his improbable victory. He is remembered for being the man who was in second place when dominant Dale Earnhardt blew a tire on the final lap and lost the lead. What is forgotten is the fastest car on this day belonged to Ken Schrader. Schrader was the pole winner yet crashed in his Thursday qualifying race and forced the team to ready their spare machine. Rules made Schrader start last after switching chassis and he showed his muscle. The former USAC ace filleted his way through the field to second place within 20 laps and was bearing down on leader Earnhardt. Richard Petty’s spin brought out the first caution and the first round of pit stops. Slow service sent Schrader back out in mid-pack. Knifing his way to the front and within sight of Earnhardt’s lead once again, the engine failed on the Schrader car.
What if Schrader’s engine held together? Earnhardt may not be remembered for his race-long dominant performance and Cope’s biggest moment may have been his Dover win later that year.
The Big One eliminated or gave damage to a large chunk of contenders around the halfway point. A three-wide battle for the lead excited the crowd yet only lasted mere seconds. Ernie Irvan, Bill Elliott, and Sterling Marlin tangled on the exit of turn two and carnage resulted. Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Petty, and Earnhardt were among the drivers gathered into the pileup. Thereafter, Davey Allison showed how strong a car he had under him without a majority of his competition.
What if the Big One hadn’t happened? A much more riveting second half would have taken place and would not have turned into an Allison benefit. Marlin was my winning prediction.
Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win ranks as a frozen image in NASCAR time. Another strong Earnhardt 500 finally came to a close without the win being yanked out from underneath him. However the final lap was run under caution and Bobby Labonte was coming like he had the car to beat. Labonte showed as low as seventh with four laps to go. He surged to second with two laps remaining. Lake Speed and John Andretti spun off turn two to trigger the infamous final caution flag and the sudden half-lap charge to the finish. Earnhardt brilliantly used the lapped car of Rick Mast as a moving pick to bottle up Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield for second spot.
What if that race-ending yellow never happened? Give the Harley J. Earl Trophy to Labonte.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)
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