Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Youth dominate NASCAR’s all-star race

May 20, 2002


— In the moments before the green flag dropped on the final segment of NASCAR's all-star race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. glanced around at the company he was in.

Ahead of him was Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, two baby-faces on the Winston Cup scene. Behind him was Jimmie Johnson, another bright-eyed rookie.

Veterans such as Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett were long gone from the race. In fact, of the final 10 drivers in Saturday night's running of The Winston, only three were more than 30 years old, with 46-year-old Bill Elliott grandfathering the group.

"I was looking at the guys I was around and I was like 'Man, Rusty and Jarrett and all them guys, they're not here,'" Earnhardt said. "It was so amazing that it was just our little fraternity up there having a good time."

That they were, with Newman having the best time of all.

The 24-year-old rookie broke into the winners circle for the first time in his Winston Cup career, winning a furious battle with Earnhardt to capture the title in one of NASCAR's premier events.

It marked yet another assault this season by one of the many, many young drivers taking over the sport.

Five of the drivers in the top 10 in points are 30 or younger and have combined to win six of the first 11 points races this season.

And now Newman has one of the biggest prizes of them all, picking up almost $800,000 in prize money, while joining Earnhardt as just the second rookie to win The Winston, a non-points race for cash and prestige.

Afterward, Earnhardt raced to the victory stage to congratulate him and maybe offer a few words of wisdom. In Earnhardt's mind, winning The Winston in 2000 made him both rich and a full-blown NASCAR star.

Told later that Earnhardt said winning the all-star event changed his life, Newman said he wasn't sure what to expect.

"I don't know, it sounds like I better talk to Junior," he said. "I'm sure it's going to be different, I'm sure I'll be treated differently from the fans, from other drivers and things like that.

"But it's something I always wanted to do - win races and beat the best there is, and I feel that's part of being a Winston Cup driver when you win a race. It's just something that I'll personally have to deal with and I'll take as a compliment, really, to know we beat the best."

That includes Earnhardt, who easily could have won the race.

With a five-lap shootout remaining following a caution, Newman had a terrific restart and appeared to be running away to victory.

But Earnhardt came slicing through the pack and ran him down, driving his Chevrolet right onto the bumper of Newman's Ford.

He could have spun him out and raced past him for the biggest purse of the season. Some say that's what his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, would have done.

But Earnhardt Jr. only gave him a nudge. Newman's car wiggled just enough to scare his entire Penske Racing team, but he quickly gathered the car and avoided a wreck.

Earnhardt, knowing he couldn't pass Newman cleanly, lifted and Newman coasted to victory.

"Of course, I'll play it over a thousand times in my head for probably weeks wondering how I could have done something different," Earnhardt said. "I got into the back of him in Turn 2 and I didn't take advantage of it. ... Getting to him was easy, but getting by him was a different story."

Newman respected Earnhardt for racing fairly, and possibly even counted himself lucky that it was Earnhardt Jr., and not his father, behind him.

"That was just good, hard racing," he said. "He's just first-class because he could have taken advantage of a good situation for him there."

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