Jarrett gets 1st victory of year

Pontiac 400 win over Martin brings Winston points lead

May 16, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- Dale Jarrett hadn't won a race this season, Mark Martin had won only once and Bobby Labonte had never had even a top five finish at a short track.

With 10 laps to go in The Pontiac-Excitement 400 last night at Richmond International Raceway, who would have bet on any of them?

But Jarrett, who started 21st, held off Martin and Labonte for his first victory of the season and in the process captured the Winston Cup points lead.

Jarrett's Quality Care Ford led the final 32 laps. It was his first victory since Oct. 11 at Talladega, Ala. It was also his first race on this three-quarter mile oval since the fall of 1997.

Under the lights at Richmond International Raceway, the sellout crowd of 103,000 watched a rough race.

"This feels great," said Jarrett, after winning $169,715. "People kept asking, `When you going to win? When are you going to win?' We kept biding our time and we finally got this win. It's just nice to finally win."

Jarrett averaged 100.102 mph for a .616 of a second victory over Martin. He was one of the few drivers who avoided mishaps or tire problems, and was the ninth driver to lead the race.

Points leader Jeff Burton suffered transmission problems after dominating early in this race.

Martin, who won the Busch Grand National race Friday night, said he was exhausted after finishing second last night.

"After the Busch race, I didn't get to my bed until 1: 30 a.m. and I didn't get to sleep until 2: 30," Martin said. "And then I woke up at 7: 30 this morning. I'm looking forward to getting out of here.

"But my car handled excellent and we let it all hang out at the end. Dale was just too tough. Maybe they've finally found their setup."

"We gave it all we had," said Martin. "But we weren't good enough to beat Dale at the end."

The victory propelled Jarrett into the points lead by 63 points over Burton, 1,669-1,606. Labonte, delighted with his third-place finish -- his best ever on a short track -- is third in the points race, 109 points behind Jarrett.

Mike Skinner, who came back from two laps down to lead the race, found his dreams curtailed on lap 335, when he spun in turn 4. And his teammate, Dale Earnhardt, who had rallied from a 37th place start to run as high as fifth, faded over the last 38 laps as his car became too loose.

Jeff Gordon, who set the track qualifying record last fall, broke it yesterday afternoon with a run of 126.499 mph. So he started No. 1 last night, and he led the first 18 laps.

And then, things changed.

John Andretti took the lead, like it was the easiest thing in the world to pass Gordon coming out of turn four on lap 19. And Andretti appeared the class of the field until a caution flag on lap 42 set the stage for massive pit stops.

Ward Burton took the lead then, when his team decided to take just two tires, but Mark wrestled it away from him less than 10 laps later on lap 54.

Jeff Burton moved up from his 10th place starting spot to take the lead on lap 57 and he and Martin traded the lead over the next 60 laps.

Through all that, Gordon was having problems.

First, Steve Park gave him a little tap in Turn 1 on lap 82. The nudge caused Gordon's car to wobble and he swung high out of the draft and out of trouble, finally settling in the eighth spot.

But Gordon's trouble wasn't over. On lap 95, he was forced to pit with a blistered right side tire and lost two laps. By then, about eight cars had had the same problem.

A caution flag allowed Gordon to make up one lap, but he missed a chance on the restart on lap 129 to get by Burton to make up his second lap.

Labonte became the sixth leader shortly thereafter.

Blistered tires, which began showing up on lap 36 when Skinner went to the pits early with right-front tire trouble, evidently caused two crashes on lap 172. At the moment Andretti's right front went flat going into turn one and sent him careening into the wall with sparks flying, Ricky Rudd's right front went flat coming out turn 4.

Before the caution was complete, Gordon suffered his second right-front flat of the night, too.

By then, there had been nearly a dozen such incidents.

"Nowhere else on the tires have we seen that kind of heat [wear]," said Goodyear Tire representative Wayne Torrence. "I'm not quite sure I can give you an answer [for it]. It's the first time we've seen the problem."

Skinner, who lost two laps with his tire problems, was back in the hunt and running second to leader Jeff Burton after a pit stop under caution on lap 211. When another caution came out on lap 242, Skinner beat everyone out of the pits for the lead.

Another driver who was moving into contention near the halfway point was Earnhardt. On lap 245, the old intimidator was up to fifth. Not a bad performance, given the seven-time champion had needed a champion's provisional starting stop to get into the race when his qualifying speed failed to make the field. He started 37th.

The man in front of him, running fourth, at that point was Jarrett. Jarrett was turning in his usual performance, hanging around the top five.

The luck wasn't nearly so good for Jeff Burton or Martin. Burton, the Winston Cup points leader, drove his car behind the wall on lap 242 after suffering transmission problems. And Martin, who was running second on lap 250, was hit by Ernie Irvin and dropped out of the top 10. He was back to sixth by lap 265.

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