Wow, that was fun.
Those were the words ringing in my head after watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. charge to the front of the pack and out-race Bobby Labonte to win the 2001 EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The thing is, the finish wasn’t leaps and bounds better than the entirety of the race… and the finish was pretty entertaining.
What I saw when I went back to watch this historical race was everything that superspeedway racing should be today.
FERG: 2001 Fall Race at Talladega was epitome of what Superspeedway Racing Should Look Like
First of all, and I’m sure this will change during the other broadcasts I watch and very greatly between years, but the NBC commentators on this race took up two minutes and 10 seconds of pace laps with the starting lineup.
They took the time to say a note about the drivers along with their paint schemes for that day – and even those pictures were just shots of the car as it came on the track for practice.
I think that goes a long way, or especially would for a nerd like me growing up that loved seeing all of the schemes.
Going into the race, I wrote down some notables that stood out to me more than others.
Jeff Gordon was leading the points in route to his fourth cup series championship.
On the pole was a driver by the name of Stacy Compton. Driving for Melling Racing, Compton had just one top 10 finish all season – coming at Daytona – but started in first place for both Talladega races.
What’s even crazier is that Chad Knaus was the crew chief on Compton’s No. 92 team before moving to Hendrick Motorsports to take a spot with the 48 team and make a whole bunch of history.
A different version of Kevin Harvick, from way back when, was in the race as a rookie, and was talked about like Joey Logano was early in his career. Todd Bodine even called him a ‘stupid idiot’ during an interview, but we’ll get to that later.
The late Jason Leffler was also amongst the field of cars, so it was great to see him racing – and doing remarkably well – again.
As the race got going, it looked like what I was used to seeing at Talladega.
A big pack at the start, running two-by-two, that would eventually navigate to three and sometimes four-wide runs, frequently.
Then lap three came, and the crowd stood up, each fan holding up three fingers in the air as a salute to Dale Earnhardt Sr.
That’s something that was in my head as normal – I had traveled to Alabama from Iowa every year as a kid with my dad and his friends for the spring race weekend at Talladega.
Each year, I remembered fans standing up and saluting the Intimidator. It was surreal watching that moment happen the same year that he passed away.
What Superspeedway Racing Should Be
What I saw after that can be synonymous to pure art.
The cars settled into the race without separating – like superspeedway racing is today – only the cars acted like they were all on their own paths.
They weren’t getting pulled to each other’s cars like magnets. They weren’t taking the air off of each other with the slightest mistake.
It made for close, fast racing and only four cautions throughout the race.
Not to mention the next fall’s race at Talladega was a caution free one. Imagine seeing that at a superspeedway in the next 10 years.
Junior and his DEI Rocket
It didn’t take long for Earnhardt Jr. to put his iconic No. 8 car to the front of the pack as he took the lead behind a big cheer from the crowd.
Junior was electric at the plate tracks (back when the cars had restrictor plates) that year. He finished second, of course at Daytona, and earned wins in the final two events.
Him and the rest of the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated cars had the wherewithal and speed to plant those cars in the front of the pack.
It showed throughout the day.
Just 30 or so laps later, Jr.’s teammate in Michael Waltrip would join him at the front.
Waltrip’s engine would end up overheating before the end of the race, but the pair paced the field throughout the day.
Kevin Harvick, the ‘stupid idiot’
The first caution of the day came out when Kevin Harvick got into the rear of Todd Bodine on the backstretch, 90 laps into the race.
Despite the incident happening near the front of the field, only four cars were involved with substantial damage.
During his interview, Bodine had some choice words for what he thought was a lackadaisical rookie in Harvick.
“I really like Kevin Harvick,” Bodine started on the NBC broadcast. “He’s a good kid and has a lot of talent, but that’s the second time that stupid idiot did that to me.”
Bodine went on but it didn’t get less eventful.
After cutting away from his interview, NBC showed footage through a pit box TV of Bodine’s crew chief hopping over the wall during a live pit stop to say something to Harvick and disrupt the front tire changer.
That won’t be something that is seen in NASCAR, maybe ever again, but it was certainly a wild one to view for the first time.
The last run at the checkered flag
When I say Earnhardt Jr. really impressed me in this race, it can’t be understated.
With 32 laps remaining, after going back in the pack following a pit stop, Earnhardt Jr. restarted P13.
He would drop back to 15th for a brief amount of time before making a push from the middle of the field to P2 over three laps.
The No. 8 car, without anyone pushing it, was flying past the rest of the cars on the track. It was crazy, even for Talladega.
It came down to the final three laps as Bobby Labonte and Earnhardt Jr. were battling side-by-side.
Tony Stewart was a teammate of Labonte’s, but eventually chose to help give the push to the No. 8 car instead of the JGR machine.
That came as a big surprise to the announcers, as well as myself.
Eventually, Labonte had to try and move up on the backstretch to block, causing a big wreck on the last lap.
Since it was an era where drivers raced back to the line following caution flags, they had half of a lap to settle a winner, and Earnhardt Jr. came through for his third win of the year.
Gordon went on to win the championship that season, and Earnhardt Jr. went on to have a promising career, but that race just took me back.
It doesn’t get much better than that, and there’s a reason my dad made so many trips to Talladega over the years.
Both then, and now – at least for the time I was writing this – I was just along for the ride.
It turned out to be better than ever.
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