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Fan's Dream, Driver's Nightmare: Last Lap at the Pepsi 400

7 July 1997

On one hand it was a NASCAR fan's dream but on the other it was a NASCAR driver's worst nightmare. What set up the paradox that pitted the driver against the fan? The flagman waving the green & white combination at Daytona International Speedway setting the stage for a one lap 'shootout'. This time, as is the case most times, the results were disastrous - a smoking pile of twisted metal surrounded by emergency workers and ambulances and wreckers sat on the apron between turns three and four as a marker to madness.

NASCAR, who, believe it or not, listened to the fans and did something that it might not have done if it absolutely knew what the results were going to be. What did the fans want that led up to this most sickening of displays? Well they said, 'We don't want to see a race end under caution' as was the case at the '97 edition of the Daytona 500.

What set the stage for the disaster? A cut tire on Ricky Rudd's Tide Ford that sent him, Michael Waltrip, Morgan Shepherd and Hut Stricklin into the turn one wall in a lap 156 incident. The image of Rudd sprawled out on the grass wasn't enough to knock some sense into those officiating the event perhaps and a rush job to get the track cleared in time for just one more lap.... a famous or maybe we should say infamous one lap 'shootout' for the checkers in the 39th running of the Pepsi 400.

So on lap 159 the flagman did it..... he threw the green & white flags and we, the members of the press, sat on the edge of our seats waiting for it to happen.... then, if almost to some script, it started to unfold - the field four and five wide going down the back straight - the cars gathering as much speed as they could as they headed for turn three.

What happened next depends on your perspective I guess but what I saw was three or four cars heading into turn 3 - with at least one of them on an insanely low line that would, even with no company, have been impossible to to make it through the turn without some heroic measures to keep the car under him. Then, as if it was some great surprise, the car got away from him and headed up the track collecting those who were next to him. When the smoke cleared at least nine cars were collected and two drivers were injured enough to need assistance - one of them needed a chopper ride to the hospital.

"That wasn't a shootout. That was a slugfest, a wreckfest. They know better than to do that," said Dale Earnhardt, driver of the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. "I hate to say I told them so, but I knew there was going to be a big wreck on that last lap. They (the drivers) did it at Talladega when they did it down there. It's good for the fans, but I hope nobody got hurt." Earnhardt's wishing didn't make it so - Ward Burton received a concussion and spent the night in the hospital.

Kyle Petty said, "Every fan up there wants to see a race finish under green, and I'm willing to bet every fan up there doesn't want to see anybody hurt. What they just had was a recipe for somebody to get hurt real bad. As far as I'm concerned, NASCAR got what they wanted. The fans didn't get anything they wanted because they saw one of their favorites get taken out on the last lap. And the same guy that was leading the race before the restart still won the race. Why didn't we just end it under caution? You could say it was somebody's fault, but I'm not going to attribute it to any driver. I'm going to attribute the fault to some guy in the tower for that one."

Mark Martin, who could have made some great gains in the series points battle, received the brunt of the cruel joke that played out on lap 159. Martin, who's true condition is unknown at this time, was taken to the infield medical center TWICE for numerous complaints. He was seen walking with a heavy limp as he waved off questions from reporters with a solid look of what was described as disgust as he headed back towards his hauler after his first visit to the infield medical center.

"You're just inviting something like that to happen," said Dale Jarrett of the last lap 'shootout'. "I know they don't like to see them (races) end up under caution, but things like that right there are what happen when you throw the green and the white at a restrictor plate race. That's just the kind of thing that happens when you get the green and white together. That's just what's going to happen, you shouldn't do that. You're just inviting trouble. You saw it almost for 100 miles of great racing. There's no sense putting the guys in danger like that for a one-lap sprint. It doesn't matter if I finish third or fifth. It would have been better for everybody (to finish under caution)."

Derrike Cope, who was one of those involved in the lap 159 incident, drove the battered Skittles Pontiac to the start/finish line, parked it on the track and walked back to the garage. Cope later said, "It's just a shame they make that kind of call. Everybody worked so hard, they had a great race, and then they had to go and do that to the race. I don't understand their thinking. It bothers me. We're racers and we're going to go out there and dig for the hole. You don't like it to end under yellow, but dadgum, it was a great race all day long and we had a great new winner. What more could they ask for, and then they do that. The guy that made that call ought to be whipped."

So what is a sanctioning body to do? The fans don't like a race to end under caution and the divers don't care much for the resultant carnage of a one-lap dash for the cash on a restrictor plate track. Maybe one option could be that the drivers unite in their own best interest and take the green flag and circle the track at the speed the pace car dropped them off at. A lap at 65 or 70 miles per hour with all the drivers staying put would send a message that both the fans and the sanctioning body would understand.... We are not willing to risk our health and safety for anyone and getting our hides out of here in one piece is worth more than a position or two on the track.

The answers to this problem aren't easy. But as one who sees these guys laugh and joke and carry on as we do and remembering that their bodies are as frail as anyone who is reading this, there must be a better way than letting 'it' happen with the simple wave of a green and white flag.

Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel