Thursday, March 17, 2016

5/3/98: Fontana crash nets Bill Elliott first last-place finish in 12 years

SOURCE: Terry Callahan, The Auto Channel
On May 3, 1998, Bill Elliott picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the California 500 presented by NAPA at the California Speedway when his #94 McDonald’s Ford crashed after 84 of 250 laps.

The finish, which came in Elliott’s 535th series start, was his first since April 27, 1986, when his #9 Coors Ford lost an engine after 42 laps of the Sovran Bank 500 at Martinsville.

Bill Elliott’s fourth and fifth last-place finishes bridged two completely different eras in Elliott’s career.  In 1986, he was in his fifth year driving for Harry Melling.  Over those first few seasons, the pair broke through with a win at Riverside in 1983, won the first of 16 “Most Popular Driver” awards in 1984, claimed the first-ever Winston Million in 1985, and would later in 1986 win the only All-Star Race not run at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Still, it would be another two seasons before Elliott claimed his lone Winston Cup.

By 1998, Elliott was an owner-driver, just as he had before signing with Melling.  He fielded his #94 for three seasons, then in 1998 added a second car in a partnership with Dan Marino.  The First Plus Financial-sponsored entry was driven by rookie Jerry Nadeau.  At the same time, Elliott was still looking for his first victory since 1994, his final year driving for Junior Johnson.  Elliott’s bright red McDonald’s Ford had threatened on several occasions, most notably the 1997 Daytona 500 and Southern 500, where both times he was bested by Jeff Gordon in the closing laps.  However, Elliott was also saddled by injuries, the worst of which a broken femur suffered at Talladega in 1996 which forced him to miss seven races - the first Cup fields he’d missed since 1982.

One week before the Fontana race, when the series again rolled into Talladega, Elliott and team were off to one of their strongest starts in years.  For one thing, the team was expanding.  Rookie Jerry Nadeau drove a full-time second team, a #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford co-owned by Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and at Elliott entered a third team for Talladega, the #89 McRib Ford, a 1997 Thunderbird driven by test driver Dennis Setzer.  For another, Elliott himself was finishing well.  Driving one of the sleek new 1998 Ford Tauruses, Elliott began the year with a 10th-place showing in the Daytona 500 and had never finished worse than 15th in the next seven races, earning him a solid 7th in the driver standings.

In the closing stages of the Talladega race, Elliott was still among the leaders and racing Dale Earnhardt for 4th when disaster struck.  Ward Burton made contact with Earnhardt, turning him left into Elliott’s right-rear.  Both cars turned hard right and were sent so hard into the outside wall that they were stuck belly-to-belly with Elliott’s roof grinding against the concrete barrier.  Both Elliott and Earnhardt walked away from the multi-car melee, though Earnhardt suffered minor burns while Elliott bruised his sternum.  Elliott’s 39th-place finish dropped him just one spot in points to 8th, but he looked to Fontana, where he’d run out of gas and finished 32nd in the 1997 inaugural, for a rebound.

Elliott qualified 12th for the Fontana race, his third-best start of the young season.  Four drivers missed the field: Dave Marcis in his #71 RealTree Chevrolet, Rich Bickle in Cale Yarborough’s #98 Thorn Apple Valley Ford, Tony Raines in Kurt Roehrig’s 2nd attempt to get his #19 into the show, and Las Vegas last-placer Hut Stricklin for the Stavola Brothers.

Starting last was Dale Earnhardt, just the fourth of five times in his career that he would start 43rd in a Cup Series race.  Earnhardt had a good run in Happy Hour, however, and by the time he entered Turn 1, he had begun to climb through the field.  Last place then belonged to 42nd-place starter Wally Dallenbach, Jr., who relieved regular driver Todd Bodine in the #35 Tabasco Pontiac.  By Lap 12, Elliott’s teammate Jerry Nadeau had fallen to 43rd, followed on Lap 17 by owner-driver Brett Bodine in the #11 Paychex Ford.  Bodine was the first to lose a lap, lost another by Lap 37, then a third by Lap 45 as the field prepared to make green-flag stops.

Elliott, meanwhile, was struggling.  On Lap 2, he was running on the high side of a three-wide battle with Darrell Waltrip and Morgan Shepherd when he was forced up into the loose stuff in the high lane.  Shepherd’s 46 First Union Chevrolet broke loose as well, and Elliott had to slow down to avoid hitting him.  Around Lap 56, Elliott was lapped by race leader Rusty Wallace, then was trapped by a debris caution that slowed the field nine circuits later.  He restarted 7th in line, but the leaders went three-wide around him again, keeping him from getting his lap back.  On Lap 85, he had fallen back even more when trouble broke out in front of him.

Dale Jarrett had a miserable weekend in Fontana.  He was suffering a stomach virus, and had then lost his primary car in a hard qualifying crash entering Turn 4.  On Lap 85, he had managed to bounce back into the 13th spot when his car sputtered and trailed smoke just short of the start-finish line.  When he entered Turn 1, the car then erupted in smoke, triggering a wreck behind him.  Kyle Petty lost control of his #44 Hot Wheels Pontiac, spun up the track, and clipped Elliott’s Ford.  This time, Elliott slammed the outside wall head-on hard enough to lift all four tires off the track.  Just as at Talladega, Elliott was slow to exit the car as the nose of his Ford ignited, but he managed to walk away.  Cleanup took so long that the red flag came out.

Dale Earnhardt spun during the wreck as he slowed to avoid Elliott and Petty, and ended up colliding with his Richard Childress team car, the #31 Lowe’s Chevrolet.  The #31’s regular driver Mike Skinner was absent from the race due to a neck injury.  In his place was Mike Dillon, the same driver who relieved Earnhardt after his first-lap loss of consciousness during the 1997 Southern 500.  For Dillon, father of current drivers Austin and Ty Dillon, it was to be his only Cup start, and the damage left him 35th, 11 laps down to race winner Mark Martin.  Earnhardt, meanwhile, managed to recover to finish 9th while his team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., finished 5th with Darrell Waltrip in the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet.  Prior to Fontana, DEI had never finished better than 15th.

Elliott, Petty, and Jarrett were the first three retirees from the race and filled the first three spots in the Bottom Five.  Finishing 42nd was rookie Kevin Lepage, whose #91 Fluidyne Automotive Chevrolet owned by Joe Falk slowed down the backstretch on the restart, went behind the wall for repairs, then returned to the track only to exit a short time later with an oil leak.  Rounding out the group was Derrike Cope, who brought out the fourth caution of the afternoon when his #30 Gumout Pontiac crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 155.

In spite of two back-to-back crashes, Elliott only missed one race in the 1998 season, and it wasn’t due to his injuries.  The day before the September race at Dover, his father George passed away, and Elliott handed driving duties over to a rising star of the Busch Series - Matt Kenseth.  Kenseth stunned with a 6th-place finish that day, and he and Busch Series team owner Robbie Reiser returned the following summer to debut a new Jack Roush team, the #17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford, with Reiser as the crew chief.

Elliott, meanwhile, continued to show flashes of brilliance with his #94 McDonald’s team, earning four more Top Fives and seven Top Tens over the next two seasons.  He was then signed to drive for Ray Evernham’s new Dodge team for 2001, and the McDonald’s sponsorship went to Cal Wells, who funded what was to be an abbreviated rookie campaign for Truck Series regular Andy Houston, who today is Austin Dillon’s spotter.  Elliott made his 828th and most recent Cup start at Daytona on July 7, 2012, finishing 37th in a one-off for Turner Motorsports.  His son Chase would join the series less than three years later.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #94 in a Cup race since July 6, 1991, when Terry Labonte quit after 8 laps of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.  It was another interesting last-place story.  Labonte’s #94 Sunoco Oldsmobile qualified 41st and last in the field, and in the race’s early stages he had difficulty keeping up with the pack.  Labonte reported engine problems, but when he pulled off the track, the Billy Hagan-owned team didn’t find anything wrong.  The story is that the team brought the wrong car to the track, and that this mistake was somehow not caught in the lead-up to the race.  Curiously, that race also marked Bill Elliott’s final win with Harry Melling, and his last in the #9 until his Evernham entry took the checkers at Homestead in 2001.

43) #94-Bill Elliott / 84 laps / crash
42) #44-Kyle Petty / 85 laps / crash
41) #88-Dale Jarrett / 86 laps / engine
40) #91-Kevin Lepage / 93 laps / oil leak
39) #30-Derrike Cope / 153 laps / crash

No comments: