There's nobody better at a game of high-speed chess than Dale Earnhardt and he outfoxed the field yesterday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, holding off Dale Jarrett to win the Winston 500.
To get to that point, though, the seven-time Winston Cup champion had to come from 27th place in the 43-car field. It took the 48-year-old drafting master just five laps to get into the top five, shouldering his way through traffic in a breathtaking 190-mph display.
Earnhardt led only 18 of the 188 laps, but got in front for the final time on Lap 185 and was able to stay ahead of a ferocious 20-car lead draft to the checkered flag.
With 170,000 spectators on their feet and roaring, Earnhardt weaved up and down the high-banked oval, somehow staying in front of Jarrett. Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevrolet beat Jarrett's No. 88 Ford to the flagstand by .114 seconds--about two car-lengths.
"I just sort of played chess with them and kept them two-by-two behind me," said Earnhardt, who swept both Talladega races this season and now has earned nine of his 74 career victories on the longest and fastest oval in NASCAR.
"They played it just right for me. If they had been more patient, they could have got back in line and got back around me. But, today, I made the right moves and got the right breaks."
Ricky Rudd finished third, followed by Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace, rookie Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.
But the day belonged to crowd favorite Earnhardt, who won for the third time this season. "This car was good," he said. "But I didn't think it was a car that was going to run up front. Even late in the race, I didn't think I had the car to win it, but [Bobby] Labonte and [teammate Mike] Skinner worked with me there at the end and helped me get to the front."
Earnhardt came from farther back than any previous winner at Talladega. The previous record was 18th by Mark Martin in 1997.
The key moment came on Lap 140, when Earnhardt drove into the pits with a group of leaders for a regularly scheduled stop. Just as they reached pit road, Terry Labonte's car began leaking and smoking from a punctured oil reservoir, bringing out the last of three caution flags. All the drivers but Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte and Burton kept going through the pits and back onto the track--and all three finished in the top seven.
"I just played my cards right," said Earnhardt, who won $120,290 and averaged 166.632 mph.
FORMULA ONE: Mika Hakkinen won the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang and captured the Formula One drivers' title after Ferrari teammates Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher--who crossed the finish line first and second, respectively--were disqualified for technical violations.
Ferrari appealed and a ruling is expected today at the Swiss headquarters of the International Automobile Federation. If Ferrari loses its appeal, Hakkinen wins not only the race but the world title for the second straight season.
CART: Scotland's Dario Franchitti led for the majority of the race in Surfers Paradise, Australia, to win the Gold Coast Indy, overtaking non-finisher Juan Montoya in the series points standings. Franchitti, the pole winner who trailed Montoya by 12 points going into the second-to-last race of the year, won the 65-lap race on the 2.795-mile street course in 1 hour 58 minutes 40.726 seconds.
IRL: In Fort Worth, Greg Ray, the local driver who went from unknown to favorite over the last two years, captured his first championship by finishing third in the Mall.com 500. Mark Dismore, who started on the front row alongside polesitter Ray, ended up winning his first IRL event with Davey Hamilton second.