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NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka: Race Report

24 November 1997

SUZUKA CITY, JAPAN -- In front of an underwhelming local crowd, NASCAR sent
its best competitors gathered from a wide group of disciplines for the second
annual NASCAR Thunder Special - Suzuka. It was Mike Skinner in the Lowe's
Chevrolet that was able to notch the win. Skinner not only won but he beat one
of the best NASCAR road racers - Mark Martin - by a healthy 3.724 second

Those following Martin across the line were 1997 Busch series champion - Randy
LaJoie, David Green, Michael Waltrip and New Zealand native - Australian racer
Jim Richards.

The NASCAR Thunder Special - Suzuka started off with a bang as a goodly part
of the field never got through turn one clean. The action started when the
contestants tried to go three-wide into turn one. The first off the track,
into the sand trap, was David Green. As the field started to check-up the
,cars started to spin out of one. The driver that got the worst of it was
Kenny Irwin in the #28. Irwin spun off the track and about had the
Texaco/Havoline whoa'd down when the #14 of Jeff Davis came along and tore the
nose off Irwin's ride. Many cars suffered damage but most was considered light
in nature.

After the mess was cleaned up the field was given the green and sent back to
racing on lap five with Mark Martin on the point. The action wasn't long lived
as lap eight saw two of the race favorites suffer problems in unrelated

The first lap eight casualty was Rusty Wallace. Wallace, who looked to be
having a fair run going spun a bearing and his day came to an early end. 

The second lap eight incident came when Dale Earnhardt tangled with Keiichi
Tsuchiya in the turn. The shunt ripped the valve from Earnhardt's right front
tire. Earnhardt though kept his foot in it - that is until the next turn. When
Earnhardt tried to make the left hand turn in the #3 ACDelco but the car went
straight - right into the wall. Earnhardt's ride suffered fairly heavy damage
and needed to be towed back to the garage for repairs to be effected. 

When asked if the #3 car would return to the race Earnhardt said, "I can't win
the race. What the hell would I do out there?" Car owner Richard Childress had
the car repaired and Earnhardt returned to the track laps down to the leader
Mark Martin. Earnhardt put on a little show for the fans on his return when he
went up front and diced it up with Martin. The action though was short lived
as Earnhardt again spun off the track after a shunt with Martin. Earnhardt
would return to the track one more time but motor problems finished him off .
Earnhardt was credited with completing 29 of the 125 lap event.

It looked like Martin would be the class of the field - almost untouchable
really. Martin held on to the point for the first 45 circuits and only gave up
the lead when he came to pit road for fuel. 

The flag man was terribly busy around lap 61 as 3 of the 5 total cautions flew
during a ten lap period. The first came when one of the cars took a run
through the gravel. Once that was cleaned up and the field was green it was
Wally Dallenbach's turn for disaster. Dallenbach's problems came when Lance
Hooper ran the #46 into the wall. Dallenbach, not pleased with Hooper's move,
waited by the edge of the track for Hooper to come by. As the #1 drove past
Dallenbach - Dallenbach started a pointing motion towards his head - trying to
tell Hooper to use his head for more than a helmet stand. 

The last caution of the period and day came when the #4  of Bobby Hamilton
went sailing into the sand. The Kodak Chevrolet was undamaged but it was out
of contention as the wait for the wrecker put him down 2 laps.

It was the #24 DuPont - Budweiser Chevrolet piloted to the point by Ricky
Craven. Craven took the #24 over for Jeff Gordon, who had a minor surgical
procedure done on his throat this week to remove a polyp from his vocal cords.
Craven handled the #24 like a pro - for a while. Craven had leads in the 3
second category  over the field but he soon fell off his setup and before
Craven knew it he was receiving heat from  Mike Skinner.

Skinner got up on Craven and beat his way past and got the lead on 103. Once
Skinner got by it was like a flood gate was opened as one after another the
leaders went by the #24. Craven's day came up a few laps short when he plowed
into the turn 3 wall mashing the right front of the DuPont - Budweiser

Once on the point all Skinner had to do was keep Mark Martin behind him. That
sounds easy but we're talking Mark Martin - noted Winston Cup road racer.
Martin would close up on Skinner and give him a bump or two. But Skinner just
used that as a wake up call and would drive away from Martin. Martin would
then let his tires cool and then go give it another try. Skinner was patient
enough with that but the last time it happened Skinner just drove off and left
Martin to languish with the rest of the field - fighting for his second spot

Skinner said after notching the win, "I told our guys our car was a little bit
loose to the right. When Mark got out there and I was in clean traffic, I was
a tick faster than anybody else. I chose to not work on the car. I told them
if they wanted to change the air pressure or whatever, that was OK. But just
leave the car alone."

The pilot of the #6 Valvoline Ford, Mark Martin, called the closing laps by
saying, "My car was pretty fast especially down the backstretch. That is until
I got to racing with Mike and found out he was a little bit better on the
frontstretch and that's where you pass. For a long time, I ran kind of behind
him on the backside of the race track and then, when I got to part where I
could pass, he pulled out on me a little bit. I worked and worked and worked
and did everything the book and get by him. There just wasn't anything. I
finally just started abusing my car more and more trying to fine something and
try to sneak in there on him somewhere. I used up the left rear tire."

Third place finisher, Randy LaJoie said, "My goal today was to stay on course
and we did. A lot of cars started dropping out and then I found myself fifth
while Michael Waltrip ( in the #21 CITGO Ford) was fourth. I passed Michael
and went into third. I'm just tickled to be here in third place." 

The NASCAR Thunder Special - Suzuka took 2 hours twenty minutes and thirty
seconds to complete. The average speed was maintained at 74.537 miles per
hour. Skinners margin of victory was a huge 3.742 seconds ahead of Martin.
Skinner got $98,750 of a $564,500 purse.

The second NASCAR Thunder - Suzuka field was made up of Winston Cup regulars,
the 1997 Busch series champion Randy LaJoie, all three NASCAR Craftsman truck
series champions, the 1997 Winston West champion as well as leading drivers
from the Pacific rim. 

This will be the next to last adventure NASCAR will make to the far east.
NASCAR's last races on the three year contract will be run next year at both
the Suzuka road course and the new Twin Ring Motegi 1.5 mile superspeedway. 

Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel