My Ongoing Tribute to the Greatest NASCAR Driver Ever
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Harvick scores emotional, historic victory over Gordon
By Marty Smith, Turner Sports Interactive
HAMPTON, Ga. -- It was only fitting that rookie Kevin Harvick won his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race on Sunday in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- it being his third career race and all.
No individual in history has ever won his first race so quickly. Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t have it any other way.
Driving the same car that Earnhardt drove to Victory Lane here in a photo finish last year, Harvick fended off a furious last lap charge by Jeff Gordon to win by a mere six thousandths of a second.
“I didn’t really know if we could do it because the car was so tight,” said an emotional Harvick in Victory Lane. “I think somebody was watchin’ over us today.”
The win marks Richard Childress’ 70th as a car owner, and somehow, despite all the glorious victories by Earnhardt, this one ranks somewhere up top.
“I just kept praying for Dale to help us out,” said Childress through teary eyes. “He gave us the help we needed.”
Did he ever. Over the final two laps, Harvick was engaged in a five-car, door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper battle with Dale Jarrett, Jerry Nadeau, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon.
Several times over the final two laps, the pack of cars went three-wide. It was at one of those moments when Harvick made the move that sent him to Victory Lane quicker than any driver in NASCAR’s 52 years.
“He made the move that won the race,” said Gordon, who took over the points lead with his runner-up finish. “Harvick was working the bottom but his car was real real tight. I thought me and (Earnhardt Jr.) were going by him at one point.
“Then Jarrett and (Nadeau) got side-by-side and Harvick went right by them on the inside. When he did that, it got jumbled up big time. You had to fill any gap you had and try to take advantage of it. He did that very well.”
Gordon wasn’t so bad himself. He utterly dominated the early portion of the race, stealing the lead from Harvick on lap 18 to lead 118 of the first 150 laps. However, while leading on lap-143, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of gas, leaving him a lap down.
He was saved a bit, however, when eight cars, including pole-sitter Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Earnhardt, Jr., were all sent to the end of the longest line for pitting too early. Subsequently, Gordon restarted a lap down in 26th position.
Gordon slowly worked his way up through the field before the motor let go in Mark Martin’s No. 6 Ford, one of three Roush Racing motors to fail on the day. Subsequently, Gordon returned to the lead lap.
From there, he restarted in 13th position and went on to his third top-5 in the first four races.
“There was a higher power watching over us today that wanted to see that outcome,” said Gordon, who now leads the points race by 37 points over Jarrett. “I’m a racer and I want to win, but there’s no team I’d rather finish second to than that one. I’m happy with those results.”
Like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Nadeau was quite impressive Sunday. He was mired deep in the field early after getting together with Michael Waltrip on the second lap. That sent him spinning down the frontstretch and into the infield grass. He managed to keep the car out of the wall, and on the strength of solid pit stops worked his way through the field and back into the top-5.
Shortly thereafter, Nadeau was the beneficiary of Dave Blaney’s misfortune. Blaney dominated the middle portion of the event, but a loose lug nut on the left rear tire of his Dodge forced an unscheduled pit stop for new tires. Following the stop, he returned to the race a lap down in 22nd position. It only got worse from there for Blaney.
After Martin’s blown motor forced the day’s fifth caution period with 93 laps remaining, Blaney pitted for tires yet again, only this time when he returned the track the left rear tire fell off, shredding the sheet metal on the left-rear quarter panel of his Dodge. NASCAR impounded the wheel for further inspection.
Nadeau led until the weather began to cool and overcast skies began to form. Jarrett swiped the lead from Nadeau with 60 laps remaining and led until Matt Kenseth hit the wall to bring out the caution. Nadeau passed him back on the restart, and led until Sterling Marlin’s motor let go with 25 laps remaining.
From there, it was time for the shootout. Jarrett was in the lead on the final restart, with Nadeau, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon. What ensued will go down in the history books as one of the most exhilirating finishes in NASCAR history. Sadly, Earnhardt Jr., wasn’t a part of it. He cut a right front tire late in the race to finish 15th.
Even so, he was pleased with the outcome.
“I’m real happy for Richard (Childress),” Earnhardt Jr., said. “It makes me feel good to go home tonight knowing that those guys got a win.”