Cautious ending lifts R. Wallace

September 19, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

DOVER, Del. -- Midnight struck in the afternoon for the third straight time yesterday. But just barely.

Rusty Wallace's most successful race car, named "Midnight," was running on fumes, not to mention a flat tire, with one lap to go. Thanks to some nifty driving by Wallace, Midnight made it across the finish line, and Wallace won the SplitFire Spark Plug 500 yesterday before a record crowd of 94,000.

It was the team's third straight victory at Dover Downs International Speedway.

This win was definitely the weirdest one.

Wallace took the lead when Mark Martin crashed with five laps to go. On the final lap, Wallace was running out of gas under a caution flag. To shift the fuel in the gas tank, Wallace started jerking his car back and forth and drove it on the track apron at 20 mph.

He wasn't the only one. Wallace's nemesis, Dale Earnhardt, rode his car on the apron, too. Earnhardt also was running out of gas.

"He pulled up alongside me, and he stuck his hand out the window and pointed to his fuel gauge and went like this," said Wallace, moving his finger back and forth like the gauge. "I said, 'Me too.' "

Riding on the apron caused Wallace to run over a broken brake rotor and puncture his left rear tire. But the caution flag prevented Earnhardt, who finished second, from passing him.

"I was pretty doomed. It was just a miracle that they didn't get the track cleaned up well enough [to run the last few laps under green]," Wallace said. "I got lucky today."

Not lucky enough to gain more than five points on Earnhardt, who still leads Wallace by 227 points as Earnhardt seeks his record-tying seventh NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

Wallace leads the Winston Cup circuit with seven victories, but he has little chance of catching Earnhardt this season for his second title.

At least Wallace finished the race. Martin, who is in third place in the series standings, crashed five laps short of victory. Martin's tire blew out because of a fender-bender with Ricky Rudd on the 479th lap. The crushed metal on Martin's car caused a blowout that resulted in a crash into the wall.

The run-in with Rudd changed the whole race.

"He had some kind of problem and wobbled up in front of me and I couldn't keep from hitting him," Martin said.

Maybe that's because Martin was not driving Midnight. In the car's past 27 races, Wallace has 13 wins and 25 top-five finishes. The car has enabled Wallace to become the first driver since David Pearson in 1972-1973 to win three straight times at Dover.

Yesterday, Midnight helped Wallace come from behind on Martin. Wallace was leading until a pit miscue on the 330th lap put him at the end of the pack.

But Wallace passed Earnhardt on the 439th lap, Geoff Bodine, who led for the first 180 laps, on the 444th lap, and Darrell Waltrip on the 445th. Wallace was in third place.

He zoomed by Ken Schrader on the 463rd lap and then closed a seven-second gap on Martin to 2.5 seconds. Then Martin crashed, and Wallace's car came through for him.

"I really had a great car today," Wallace said. "It was super fast, and I'm just glad we won."

Midnight has been a great car since its first race. It won the 1992 MGD 500, a night race in Richmond, Va. Crew chief Buddy Parrott, during a late-night celebration, named the car Midnight.

The car became so successful that, like a stallion, it now has offspring: Midnight Rider, Captain and an unnamed R.P. 16. Wallace said of cloning his favorite car, "We'd be stupid if we didn't."

Yet Midnight is not used in every race. It is used on slower tracks such as Dover and Bristol, where it won in its last appearance, but not on speed tracks such as Talladega and Daytona.

Next week in Martinsville, Wallace will be driving Midnight Rider. Midnight will not make another appearance until Oct. 23 in Rockingham.

Wallace's fans don't always agree with his strategy.

"Every time I go to the track, everybody asks, 'Have you got Midnight?' " Wallace said. "I say, 'Well, no.' And they say, 'Well, you're nuts.' Maybe I should."

But then the car might become more popular than the driver. Midnight does not look different from Wallace's other cars. It is not labeled. It does not need to be.

"Just the mystique, that is enough," Wallace's public relations director, Tom Roberts, said. "It's as if these cars have a personality of their own."

1. (10) Rusty Wallace, Ford Thunderbird, 500, $55,055, 112.556 mph. 2. (37) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Lumina, 500, $47,980. 3. (35) Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Lumina, 500, $36,705. 4. (14) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Lumina, 500, $32,965. 5. (1) Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 500, $31,520. 6. (15) Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 500, $24,965. 7. (29) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Lumina, 500, $23,015. 8. (34) Steve Grissom, Chevrolet Lumina, 499, $16,815. 9. (22) Lake Speed, Ford Thunderbird, 499, $21,765. 10. (20) Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 499, $23,565.

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