Weather forces suspension of Richmond race until today

Pontiac Excitement 400 starts after long rain delay

only 66 laps completed

Auto Racing

May 05, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - Teams pushed their Winston Cup cars on to pit road, covered them and headed back to the garage under the protection of umbrellas. Race fans walked through raindrops around the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Speedway throughout the afternoon, killing time, looking at the sky.

Everyone had come early yesterday, trying to beat the traffic jams, and by 11 a.m., the streets and parking lots were jammed for the Pontiac Excitement 400, which was scheduled for 7 last night.

Now, they'll have to do it all over again.

After a day of rain that stretched into the evening to delay the race more than two hours, the race got under way much to the delight of the 102,000 who packed Richmond International Raceway.

But at 10:40 p.m., the remaining 334 laps were suspended until noon today.

Many fans had arrived 10 hours or more before the race finally started at 9:11 p.m., and many were still in their seats, enduring a downpour, when the race was finally postponed.

Pole-sitter Ward Burton had taken the lead at the drop of the green flag and began running away from second-place qualifier Dale Earnhardt Jr. They ran like that over the first 61 laps, until rain began to fall again, bringing out the yellow flag and setting off a series of pit stops.

Driver Dale Jarrett chose not to pit and took the lead. Michael Waltrip, Bobby Hamilton and Frank Kimmel followed his lead. A few laps later, when the red flag came out and the cars were parked on pit road on lap 66, just 32 minutes after the race had begun, those four were suddenly the top four, and Burton, who did pit, was seventh.

"We'll get back up front," Burton said. "This might be the best car I've ever had here, but I'll have to tell you tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll see how I run being around a lot of cars."

Most of the drivers took the delay matter-of-factly, as rookie Jimmie Johnson shrugged, `Can't race in the rain.' "

But it was a disappointing end to a very long day.

Nearly everyone made the best of the cold, rainy weather. In the garages before the race, sponsors and fans lined up for autographs as Jeff Burton talked, accepted good luck wishes and signed a model car before hurrying back into his team's truck for a meeting. Next door, Ricky Rudd, the driver who tied Terry Labonte for the Iron Man title with 655 consecutive starts last night when the green flag waved, smiled into TV cameras voicing his wish for the rain to stop.

Further along, driver Robby Gordon could be found hunkered down in the sitting room of his team's transporter, wondering if his schedule would remain intact. If anyone here had a reason to want this race to be run last night, it was Gordon.

"I'm supposed to be at Indianapolis Sunday [today] for the opening of practice for the 500," he said. "Now it's all starting to come unraveled."

Gordon, the only Winston Cup driver who will attempt to do the racing double of running the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26, will miss that opening practice. But his Winston Cup car owner Richard Childress - who is also part owner of his Menard/Cingular Wireless Indy Car - didn't think it would impact Gordon's Indy performance that much, pointing out, "Robby is not a rookie. He's got experience there and I think he'll be OK."

But the rain is a pain. Is any place drearier than a racetrack in the rain? It's difficult on everyone, including the fans. Fans, the ones not walking around the track or standing in a line, are doing little but sitting in cars or in the grandstands. Yesterday, many sat on the cold metal stands hour after hour looking more like splotches of color on a canvas than live animated humans.

And for the teams, in a season that has only three weekends scheduled as off days, the possibility of losing what could be a free Sunday is at the least disappointing.

Rain is all part of the game. Everyone knows it. Everyone copes.

NOTE: Driver Johnny Benson, who was badly shaken up in a crash during the Busch Series event here Friday night, was still in the hospital yesterday evening and planned to watch the race from his hospital bed. Driver Joe Nemechek filled in for him in the Valvoline/Maxlife Pontiac team.

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