Jimmy Spencer

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A special night for Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains soured by competitor’s comments

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — Sixteen years later, the sting and anger remain with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The night of one of his greatest triumphs in NASCAR — if not his greatest — remains soured by questions that all was not legit when he won the July Daytona race, the first Cup race there since his father’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

While Earnhardt celebrated his win that July night, Jimmy Spencer raised doubts about the legitimacy of the emotional victory.

“I knew going in that the 8 car (Earnhardt) was going to win this race,’’ Spencer said after the event. “Something was fictitious and he was really fast the other night. They were fast down here in February. It’s not ironic that the 8 car would win with what happened here in February.’’

A few days later, Earnhardt challenged those comments: “It’s really bothered me pretty bad. That’s like the biggest race of my career. That was my biggest win. Aside from the wins that I had when my father was there, that is going to be a day that I’ll always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, question my credibility, I feel like that’s a slap in my face, a slap in my father’s face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury’s face.

“I never drove any harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead and I was blocking all night long.’’

Even now, Earnhardt can’t forget Spencer’s comments.

When Earnhardt sees Spencer’s diecast cars in the office of a JR Motorsports employee, Earnhardt’s thoughts return to what Spencer suggested.

“I see those diecasts, that’s the only thing that I think about,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don’t think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that.

“For us to come back here the next race and win and have success over the next several years was sort of was like “Hey, it wasn’t a one-race fluke or illegal car, that’s just how good our program was at the plate tracks.’’

Earnhardt’s victory came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. The team won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races between the 2001 Daytona 500 (won by DEI’s Michael Waltrip) and the 2004 Daytona 500 (won by Earnhardt).

Spencer wasn’t the only driver who seemed to raise questions about Earnhardt’s win in the July Daytona race. After the race, Johnny Benson said: “You don’t go by yourself on the outside and and make that kind of time up. But it’s OK. It was good that Junior won.’’

Earnhardt told the New York Times he received apologies from both Spencer and Benson shortly after the event.

“Johnny Benson came up to me, and he was really upset because some of what he said was taken out of context,” Earnhardt told the New York Times. “Spencer pretty much blatantly said what he said.’’

Nothing has changed for Earnhardt since.

“Of course, you know it’s Jimmy Spencer, it’s the kind of thing he does,’’ Earnhardt said. “I never really liked that too much and haven’t forgotten about. It’s hard to forget something like that.

“It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family.’’

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Flashback: 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona when John Andretti won for Cale Yarborough

Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images
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Twenty years ago, Jeff Gordon won his first Daytona 500.

You knew that already. Or you’ve been reminded recently thanks to regular airings of the abridged broadcast on Fox Sports 1 or the network’s (really good) documentary about the race.

John Andretti, driving Cale Yarborough’s No. 98 Ford,  was Yarborough’s first and only NASCAR Cup Series victory as a car owner. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

However, do you remember what happened 20 years ago this week?

An Andretti won at Daytona.

Thirty years after Mario Andretti won his only Daytona 500, his nephew John Andretti put his name in the history books by winning the 1997 Firecr … I mean, the Pepsi … wait, the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.

You know what I mean.

On July 5, 1997, the 34-year-old Andretti won his first Cup race, what was then the Pepsi 400.

That weekend Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were exterminating  space bugs in theaters in Men in Black. In music, the top song was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy … I mean P. Diddy. No, it’s Sean Combs. Yeah, that’s it.

You know what I mean.

When ESPN began its broadcast of the race, Andretti was third on the grid. He was next to Gordon and behind the Richard Childress Racing front row of Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt. The latter was in the midst of his first winless season since 1981.

To get the audience up to speed, ESPN featured a series of four musical montages to recap the season to date.

The songs of choice are in included in the below Spotify playlist.

In none of the storylines set up by those montages was Andretti’s name mentioned.

He drove the No. 98 RCA Ford owned by Cale Yarborough, who himself won at Daytona nine times in his racing career. Andretti was in his fourth full year of Cup racing and was three years removed from being the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600 in the same day.

As the field came to the green, Andretti was 27th in the points and had only one top-10 finish through 15 races, a fourth-place finish at Talladega.

By Lap 3, Andretti was in the lead after having led only 20 laps the whole season – 19 at Talladega and one at Pocono.

On Lap 12, announcer Bob Jenkins made first mention of Andretti seeking his first Cup win. The son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother, Aldo, John Andretti made his first NASCAR start in October 1993 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for Tex Powell.

By July 1997, the cousin to Michael Andretti had only earned four top fives in 109 starts.

Here’s an observation on restrictor-plate racing in the mid-1990s – it was better.

This isn’t intended to be a typical “the racing then was better” statement.

In the years since tandem drafting was banned, restrictor-plate racing has largely become a large pack of cars where moves must be cherry picked at the right time and nothing can change for laps on end.

But in 1997, 10 years into the plate era, the field wasn’t bunched together, almost held against its will. While still close in proximity, drivers had room to maneuver in a slightly strung out snake, with no clearly defined lines. A driver could make something happen more easily without the risk of starting the “Big One.”

Instead of keeping your eyes on the screen waiting for chaos to break out, you were left waiting to see who made a push toward the front.

And when something bad did happen, chances were half the field wasn’t taken out … probably.

This was the case on Lap 33, when Jimmy Spencer got turned on the backstretch and only Chad Little and Mike Skinner were caught in it.

It resulted in the first pit stops of the day and a near scare for Andretti as he left the pits and Gordon nearly took him out at the pit exit.

He restarted second behind Bill Elliott and had the lead back by the time the field got to Turn 4.

Andretti’s previous career best for laps led was 41 in the 1995 Southern 500. In this race, he led 80 of the first 89 laps.

All the videos in the post are from a YouTube video that is the raw satellite feed from the ESPN broadcast, which means you don’t see the commercials.

During a commercial break with 95 laps to go, pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch radioed to the booth the following as Andretti led Ward Burton and Ken Schrader:

“Hey guys, I don’t know if you can get a shot of him, but Cale Yarborough is on top of the RCA truck in the garage and he’s so excited. He’s taking on the radio, he’s driving the race car. He’s cracking the guys up in the pit. He’s saying, ‘John, John, go help the 3, help that 4, help that 3, help that 4.’ They’re just dying. They said he’s jumping up and down on top of the truck.”

ESPN never got a shot of him.

Yarborough had reason to be excited. A 83-time Cup winner as a driver, Yarborough was a car owner from 1987 – when he drove for himself – to 1999. He fielded cars for Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope and Jeremy Mayfield. Andretti replaced Mayfield with eight races left in the 1996 season.

In 371 races, Andretti’s win would be the only visit to victory lane for Yarborough as an owner.

“And I was just as happy walking in there as I was when I was driving in there,” Yarborough said.

With 43 laps to go, Andretti pulled off a maneuver that would be declared illegal in today’s NASCAR. Going down the backstretch, Andretti dove his No. 98 Ford down below the dotted white line to get by Rusty Wallace into fifth.

This was similar to the move Gordon made on Bill Elliott six months earlier on the frontstretch that eventually led to him winning the Daytona 500.

Speaking of Gordon.

The 1995 Cup champion was on his way to his second title that season. He would do it on the back of 10 wins, which matched his total from 1996. From 1995-97, the “Rainbow Warriors” won 27 times and they would add a modern record 13 in 1998.

By July 1997, many in the grandstands were sick of it.

So, when Gordon smacked the backstretch wall on Lap 125, they let their pleasure be known as the No. 24 limped to pits.

If you want to party like it’s 1997, you have my permission to crank this up while you sip a cold Pepsi or a Coca-Cola depending on your sponsor obligations.

When the race went green with 30 to go, Andretti was second. A lap later he had to take the lapped cars of Bill Elliott and Spencer three-wide to make a clear path to Mark Martin.

Now Andretti was experiencing déjà vu. Earlier in the year, Andretti finished fourth to Martin in the caution free Winston 500 at Talladega, a race he had the pole for and led 19 laps of early on. That day, no one could get out of line to take a shot at Martin in the closing laps.

“I got behind Mark and thought, ‘Not like Talladega again,’” Andretti said later, according to the Associated Press. “Luckily for me Bill Elliott pushed me through. I guess I owe Bill a check for this.”

The drafting help from Elliott came on Lap 137 after coordination between the two team’s spotters.

By the time there was 13 laps to go, The Intimidator was stalking his prey in the form of Andretti. Earnhardt was running in second, followed by Dale Jarrett and Martin.

The end of the race was heating up when the final caution of the race waved for a five-car crash in Turns 1 and 2 with four to go.

As the field raced back to the flag – which was still a thing at this point – ESPN cameras caught the No. 98 crew mildly celebrating, thinking the race was over.

They were wrong.

The wreck was cleaned in time for a final lap, with the green and white flag being displayed together.

When they waved, Andretti had a rear-view mirror full of a certain black car.

As Andretti celebrated his win, Ward Burton was put on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital to be tested for a concussion, but results were negative.

Also negative were driver reactions to how the race ended.

“That wasn’t a shootout,” Earnhardt said. “That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that.”

Said Kyle Petty, “What they just had is a recipe for somebody getting hurt real bad. NASCAR got what they wanted, the fans didn’t get anything because they saw some of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won. Why didn’t we just end it under caution?”

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO: John Andretti

When it came to NASCAR, Andretti wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

He won once more in 393 Cup starts. Two years later, while in his second stint in the No. 43 for Petty Enterprises, Andretti found victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after leading only the final four laps.

His last full-time season came in 2002.

From 2003-10 Andretti competed sporadically in Cup while competing in one full Xfinity campaign in 2006.

His final NASCAR start came in the 2010 Daytona 500, where he finished 38th for Front Row Motorsports after a crash.

From 2007-11, he made 10 starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The final four, which included three attempts at the Indianapolis 500, were in a No. 43 Honda co-owned by Andretti Autosport and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Andretti returned to the spotlight earlier this year at the age of 54 with the news that had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.

On May 28, every car in both the Indy 500 and Coke 600 displayed decals supporting Andretti and advocating for people to get colonoscopies.

This is the third in an occasional series looking back at classic NASCAR races (at least those that are on YouTube).

Previously

Dale Earnhardt’s final Martinsville win in 1995

Bill Elliott’s 1985 Talladega win

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