Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 18 - They know they have lost

For the last couple of years, I've been compiling a list of daily trivia items related to the racing Petty family. Lee, Richard, Kyle, Adam, Maurice, Petty Enterprises, and Richard Petty Motorsports. Wins, narrow defeats, abysmal runs, birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths. I post the daily trivia on a couple of message boards and have had it running in the sidebar here on the blog.

As I double-checked my Petty trivia facts and sought out photos and YouTube clips tonight (Feb 17 as I type this), I realized how much epic NASCAR history in general occurred on February 18. While I'm sure media, NASCAR historians, trivia geeks, etc. knew the following, I didn't fully connect the dots until tonight that these three momentous races all happened on February 18. Not too much of a surprise - all were Daytona 500 races.

February 18, 1976 - "There's a fight!"

Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battled for the lead early in the race. Bobby and Donnie got together, collected Cale, and all three slid through the sandy mud and standing water along the backstretch. Somehow, someway Donnie and Cale managed to get back in the lead lap. They found themselves again at the head of the field on the final lap of the race.

Of course, we all know the ending to what is arguably the most famous Daytona 500 of them all. Cale wrecks Donnie - or maybe Donnie wrecks Cale. Chicken or the egg - which came first? As a Petty fan, who hit whom didn't really matter because the King sailed by them and captured his sixth Daytona 500 win.

While Richard and his crew celebrated and the fans went mad with glee, Larry, Moe, and Curly got out of their cars, called each other names, threw helmets, grabbed ankles, and n'yuk, n'yuk, n'yukked it up. Ken Squire's succinct but genuinely emotional words still stick with me 30+ years later: "There's a fight! ...They know they have lost."

February 18, 1990 - "Something is amiss."

Dale Earnhardt ran well as a rookie in the 1979 Daytona 500 - the one described above. He was in the hunt again in 1986, but he lost to Geoff Bodine as the #3 Wrangler Chevy needed a splash of gas with just a few laps to go. But 1990 was his year...or so it seemed. Driving the back Goodwrench Chevy, he beat the field into submission by leading 155 of 199 laps. However, the race was 200 laps - not 199. He cut a tire a half-lap away from victory, and Derrike Nope...err...Derrike NoHope....umm...Derrike COPE stole the victory in what most say is the biggest upset win in Daytona 500 history.

As Squire noted in 1979, Earnhardt knew he had lost. He pulled up out of the groove, let the field steamroll by, and waited another eight years to get his only Daytona 500 win. (As a reminder Bank Truck, the King has SEVEN D500s to go with his SEVEN Cups.)

February 18, 2001 - "I just hope Dale's OK. I guess he's OK isn't he?"
  • A great race.
  • A first time win by Michael Waltrip.
  • Consummate teamwork between DEI drivers Waltrip and Dale Jr.
  • "The Big One" with about 25 to go involving a rollover by Smoke.
All of these points remain secondary in the history of NASCAR to the primary event of the day - the death of Dale Sr.

While I loathe Darrell Waltrip's bleating of boogity, boogity, boogity and his name-dropping for his brother's team and sponsors, I remain moved by his emotion of that day. He rightfully cheered for Mikey to hustle to the checkered flag. Immediately, however, his eyes and concern zipped to turn four to the wrecked #3 - even as the rest of the FOX booth team and cameras were late in recognizing the severity of what had just happened. Its difficult even now to understand if DW's meek utterance of "I just hope Dale's OK. I guess he's OK isn't he?" was said because of the emotion of Michael's win or because in his gut he knew it was bad inside the Goodwrench car.

Either way, 02-18-2001 remains among the top historical moments of all time in NASCAR. In his prime, I didn't like Earnhardt. Couldn't stand him. Didn't like his style, his terse interviews, his fans, etc.

I passed on him as a rookie in 1979 in favor of Joe Millikan - a former Petty late model sportsman driver and crewman. Big mistake on my part as Joe washed out of the sport in a few short years, and Earnhardt went on to match the King in championships (though once again Richard has SEVEN Daytona 500 wins).

But I still remember calling my long-time racing padner and fellow old school Petty fan in High Point (now in Charlotte), NC that evening. Neither of us were quite sure what to say - about Earnhardt or really even to each other.

Perhaps as expected, I've mellowed over time about Dale. I respect what he did, and I wish he were here to grab some of these spoiled, "I'm entitled" punks of today's drivers by the scruff of their neck.

With Sr's death in 2001, I think Ken Squire's comment in 1979 suddenly became applicable to everyone who followed racing: "They know they have lost."

Most folks' "Top Daytona 500 Finishes of All Time" generally include the 1959 inaugural race with Lee Petty as the winner, the 1976 race with Pearson besting Richard Petty, and 1988's edition where Bobby Allison beat son Davey to the line. But they also include the 1976, 1990, and 2001 races as well - sometimes with all 3 in the top 5 of all time. I just found it interesting the three of them all fell on February 18.


1 comment:

  1. Great writing dude. It made you feel like you were there for each one of them.