Rusty Wallace, a driver who has had a lot of bad luck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, permitted himself to think that he had a race won here. Bill Elliott had the only car faster than Wallace’s today, but for seven laps Elliott remained plastered on Wallace’s rear bumper, unable to sweep past him.
Then, with 11 laps to go, Wallace’s car went just a little bit wide around one corner, and Elliott, the suddenly rejuvenated 46-year-old driver from Dawsonville, Ga., rolled past him and went on to win the Brickyard 400 by 1.269 seconds, or 10 car lengths.
It was the slowest Brickyard 400 in the event’s nine-year history, but after he climbed from his red Dodge, Elliott called the 43rd victory of his Winston Cup career his greatest.
Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup champion, has had some tough years — his victory last fall in Homestead, Fla., was his first in 227 races — and he said again today that he was dumbfounded that the new team owner, Ray Evernham, gave him a ride in 2001.
”I feel like I’ve had a second chance at life,” said Elliott, who won the Pennsylvania 500 last Sunday.
For that reason, Wallace said he could only grin as Elliott passed him for the last time. Wallace turns 46 on Aug. 14, and he has grown tired of hearing about the so-called young guns, drivers in their 20’s who are said to have taken over Nascar.
Elliott led for 93 of the 160 laps today and was the only driver who did not need to take a gamble to get into a position to win.
”He hasn’t lost anything,” Wallace said.
Still, Wallace thought he had a chance. He took only two fresh tires on his last pit stop, which came with 32 laps left. Elliott took four tires and fell to fifth. But four fresh tires grip a racetrack much better than two.
Tony Stewart passed Mark Martin for the lead on the 134th lap, and Wallace passed Stewart three laps later. But Elliott was passing cars, too. He moved into fourth by the 136th lap, into third one lap later, then into second with 21 laps, or 52 1/2 miles, to go.
Matt Kenseth, who finished third, spoke for a lot of drivers when he said of Elliott, ”I couldn’t run close behind him for very long.”
Two formidable competitors had already fallen off the pace. Jeff Gordon, the defending Brickyard 400 and Winston Cup champion, scrambled into second place, behind Elliott, by deciding to take only fuel during a pit stop with 61 laps left.
Without the benefit of fresh tires, Gordon slipped from contention and finished sixth on a 93-degree afternoon; temperatures soared to more than 150 degrees in the cockpits.
Dale Jarrett, a two-time Brickyard 400 champion, was in second place with 49 laps left. As Elliott took four tires during his final pit stop, Jarrett took two. But he tore out of his pit too quickly, leaving a catch can stuck in his gas tank. Even after swerving back and forth to shake the can loose, Jarrett was told by race officials that he had to visit the pits again. He rallied to finish 10th after falling to 28th but conceded afterward that it had been a terrible day.
”You can’t make any mistakes,” Jarrett said. ”Just like we said, it takes a perfect day here, and Bill and those guys had a perfect day.”
The perfect day had been at least a month in the making. Mike Ford, Elliott’s 32-year-old crew chief, had worked Elliott particularly hard during testing last month. ”When I walked out of here,” Elliott said, smiling, ”I was like a whipped puppy at the end of the day.”
But Ford also decided to spend almost no time preparing the car for its qualifying run Saturday. Elliott still qualified second for today’s race, behind only Stewart.
Either Stewart, who wound up 12th, or Elliott led all but 8 of the first 129 laps. All the action seemed to be happening behind them.
After the race, Stewart, known to have a volatile temper, punched a photographer. Stewart broke into a trot to get away from Gary Mook, a freelance photographer for The Indianapolis Star. Mook ran alongside him, and Stewart turned and threw several punches before he was pulled away.
Another incident with ill will occurred when Kurt Busch, who turned 24 today, was sent spinning into the wall on the 35th lap by Jimmy Spencer, a 45-year-old Pennsylvanian who has quickly developed a feud with Busch.
After Busch got out of his car, he gestured toward Spencer as he rumbled past. Busch said of the accident: ”Just an unfortunate circumstance where we raced with an old, decrepit has-been. Or, I guess, a never-was is the term we need to use to describe Jimmy Spencer.”
Spencer said, ”I think Kurt has a lot to learn, and some of that is to control his mouth.”By DAVE CALDWELL
Published: August 05, 2002