Burton bides time, wins 500

As wrecks, mistakes multiply, his patience rewarded at Daytona

February 18, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Ward Burton is a country boy, born and raised in the Virginia hills around South Boston. He speaks softly with a slow drawl. You might not think of him as a calculating master of Zen.

But yesterday, while everything and everybody around him seemed to be spinning out of control on Daytona International Speedway's high banks, Burton used self-discipline and insight to avoid every disaster that came near him to win the 44th Daytona 500.

Burton drove his Caterpillar Dodge to a 0.193-second victory over Elliott Sadler and his Wood Brothers Ford.

It was the first time a Virginian has won the 500 and the first victory for Dodge here since Richard Petty won the 1974 race.

Geoffrey Bodine, who was competing in his first 500 since a horrendous crash in the Craftsman Truck Series here two years ago, finished third.

"My crew chief always says to drive the car like we stole it," said Burton, who attracted no attention until the final five laps, when he suddenly appeared as the leader.

"I watched guys all day block other cars and try to put their wheels in their tire tracks. When you do that in front of a guy who has a head of steam, you put yourself at the mercy of the guy behind you, and sometimes that guy doesn't want to give and sometimes that guy has nowhere else to go.

"I was very determined not to wreck my car while trying to win the race."

And so, for most of the afternoon, Burton made himself ease back and was rewarded by seeing the top contenders take themselves out of the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and Jeff Gordon were all out of the picture by Lap 195, five laps from the finish.

It was then, as Gordon and Marlin were penalized for rules violations and sent to the back of the pack, that Burton took the lead and held off Sadler, another Virginian, for victory.

"It was a wild race," said Burton's car owner, Bill Davis.

The NASCAR rulebook was designed to set standards that would break up the big-pack racing at the superspeedway tracks this season - and the rules worked to some degree. But during the week leading up to the race, Dodge and Ford campaigned for rule changes they felt they needed to be competitive with Chevrolet and Pontiac.

NASCAR agreed to lower the spoilers on Dodges and Fords to help them create more speed.

The change may have counteracted the original goal of spreading the competition. With diminished power, other drivers found it more difficult to pass but felt more comfortable with their speed, which set the stage for aggressive driving.

Attempted passes were constantly cut off by blocking maneuvers. All in all, it was a throwback to the untamed racing days. Benny Parsons, the 1975 Winston Cup champion and now NBC commentator, said the race reminded him of the 1960s, when leaders came and went in undisciplined wrecks and half the field would be one or more laps down.

Yesterday, there were nine cautions for 38 laps. Seven of those wrecks came over the last 175 miles and only 14 of the 42 cars were still on the lead lap at the end.

One of the wrecks nearly eliminated Burton, and the aftermath of another did eliminate Gordon and Marlin, who seemed about to settle the outcome between them.

"I was right behind the wreck with Harvick and Gordon," Burton said. "For an instant, I thought about going high, but then I stayed low. I even turned the wheel sideways to avoid it and still Harvick missed me by only a foot or two."

That occurred on Lap 149 and collected 18 cars. Harvick was trying to hold off Gordon for second.

"I tried to hold my ground a little bit," Harvick said. "Gordon wanted the same spot I did. I tried to block, he came up and all hell broke loose. ... That's the one downfall of this restrictor-plate package. You have to block to maintain your position, because once you get hung out, you lose so much ground. I came down. We got together and I wrecked."

Those caught up in the melee were not forgiving.

"There is no give out there. It's all take, take, take," Todd Bodine said.

"I tired to tell NASCAR there's a bunch of hell-driving race cars out there," Bobby Hamilton said.

Burton, 40, wasn't one of them. He didn't even try to find a fast lane until the last 34 laps.

"There were a couple instances out there that I could have hit somebody, wrecked them," Burton said. "I'm sure there was more than one instance they could have done the same to me. But I tried to drive the way you want to be driven."

Perhaps, then, it was fitting that Gordon, who contributed to Harvick's spin, was on the receiving end of a similar situation while leading with seven laps to go.

It was a restart. Gordon and Marlin had just passed under the green flag when cars began spinning all along the front stretch. Looking in their rearview mirrors, both men knew the importance of this one lap as they charged into the first turn.

Both of them wanted to be in the lead when they got back to the start-finish line, because neither of them knew how long the ensuing caution would last.

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