Thursday, April 7, 2016

4/2/2000: Jerry Nadeau tangles with teammate Gordon in Texas

On April 2, 2000, Jerry Nadeau picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the DirecTV 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #25 Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car crash, ending his race after 110 of 334 laps.

The finish, which came in Nadeau’s 76th series start, was his first since September 5, 1999, when his #36 M&M’s Pontiac crashed after 48 laps of the 50th Annual Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington, 17 races previous.

Nadeau’s brief and tumultuous NASCAR career began in 1995, when he made his Busch Series debut at the tiny Hickory Motor Speedway.  At the time of his 21st-place finish in Greg Pollex’s #15 Buss Fuses Ford, the Connecticut driver was also honing his road course skills overseas, turning his background in go-karts toward the Formula Opel European Union Series Championship.  By 1997, Nadeau decided to commit to NASCAR full-time, and that year made his Cup debut for Richard Jackson at Michigan, where he finished 36th in the #1 R&L Carriers Pontiac.

In 1998, Nadeau signed on with a new team, Elliott-Marino Motorsports.  Bill Elliott, at the time in his fourth season as owner-driver of the #94 McDonald’s Ford, co-founded the team with Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.  Nadeau struggled in the dolphin grey and orange #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford, failing to qualify at Las Vegas and Texas with finishes no better than 21st.  That June at Sonoma, Nadeau’s first road course start in Cup, he put the #13 outside-pole next to Jeff Gordon.  Eager to take the lead from Gordon at the start, Nadeau ran off course in Turn 2 and damaged the track bar, eventually smashing into a dirt embankment and finishing last.  Elliott-Marino released Nadeau after the next race in New Hampshire.

Nadeau finished the 1998 season driving for Harry Melling, whose #9 Cartoon Network Ford was also struggling.  The team began the year with veteran Lake Speed, but the Mississippi native unexpectedly retired after the Loudon race.  Nadeau jumped aboard just in time for the next road course at Watkins Glen, where he started 8th and finished a season-best 15th.  Nadeau spent just over a year with the Melling team, scoring his first Top 10 with an 8th at Talladega, before he was released once more in the summer of 1999.  Once again, Nadeau would relieve another retiring driver - Ernie Irvan, whose second serious crash at Michigan forced him to step away from MB2 Motorsports’ #36 M&M’s Pontiac.  But the biggest surprise was still to come.

Hendrick Motorsports’ #25 team was struggling to find victory lane.  Fan favorite Ken Schrader, who came aboard to relieve the ailing Tim Richmond in 1988, hadn’t won a Cup race since 1991 and left the team in 1996.  Ricky Craven signed to drive in 1997, finishing 3rd in a Hendrick sweep of the Daytona 500 podium, but his concussion from a hard crash at Texas lingered for more than a year, ultimately putting him out of the ride in early 1998.  Randy LaJoie, then Wally Dallenbach, Jr. came aboard, but both were unable to find consistency with the team.  On top of it all, longtime sponsor Budweiser was leaving the team after 1999 to fund a youngster who made his Cup debut that year: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, syndicated home improvement show host Michael Holigan approached Hendrick to sponsor the #25.  The one condition?  Holigan wanted Nadeau in the car.

And so it was.  One article nicknamed Nadeau “The Magician” for securing the top-tier ride after so many struggles with four different teams.  The first six races did little to sway the skeptics.  Nadeau’s dazzling blue-and-white Chevrolet showed speed, never qualifying worse than 22nd, but the tam had yet to come home on the lead lap or finish any better than 19th.  Texas, scene of Craven’s injury and Nadeau’s most recent DNQ, was next.

While Nadeau lined up 8th for the race, the last starting spot in the 43-car field went to Robert Pressley, whose #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford had carried him to his best Cup finish at that time, a 3rd in 1998.  By Lap 6, Darrell Waltrip, making his final Texas start as part of his “2000 Victory Tour,” had fallen to the rear in his #66 Big K Mart Route 66 Ford.  Waltrip had finished last in the inaugural when he was caught up in the Lap 1 pileup.  By Lap 12, the 43rd spot belonged to Gary Bradberry, who was making his first start of the season after replacing Rick Mast in the Larry Hedrick-owned #41 Big Daddy’s BBQ Sauce Chevrolet.

The first caution of the afternoon came on Lap 18.  Scott Pruett, then a rookie in the Cup Series, had started 3rd and taken the lead in Cal Wells’ #32 Tide Ford.  After Dale Earnhardt, Jr. slid past, Junior’s DEI teammate Steve Park clipped Pruett while racing for 2nd, sending the #32 sliding into the outside wall.  Repairs to the left-rear of the car dropped him two laps down in the 43rd spot, and he started to lose more laps from a likely trip behind the wall on Lap 68.  Joining Pruett in the garage was Stacy Compton, whose #9 Kodiak / Cougar Ford for Melling Racing had smacked the Turn 4 wall on Lap 88.  Pruett returned to the track before Compton, dropping the #9 to last by Lap 104.  Compton was still last when the caution flew again for a multi-car wreck.

Running in the middle of the pack, Nadeau was following rookie Dave Blaney’s #93 Amoco Pontiac through Turns 1 and 2 when Blaney washed up the track, forcing Nadeau to back off.  Unfortunately, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, and Johnny Benson, Jr. were right behind him, causing a chain reaction that sent Nadeau and Gordon spinning.  Nadeau spun backwards into the outside wall while Elliott collided with Gordon, the McDonald’s Ford lifting on two wheels as it rode up on Gordon’s hood.  Benson also suffered damage to the right-front of his #10 Pontiac.  All the cars involved returned to the race except Nadeau, whose entire rear clip was destroyed in the wreck.  When Compton returned to the track, Nadeau took the 43rd spot.

Benson ended up 42nd at the finish after tangling with John Andretti down the backstretch on Lap 146.  41st went to Bradberry’s #41, which backed into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 170.  39th went to rookie driver Elliott Sadler.  Sadler, tabbed by the Wood Brothers to take over for Michael Waltrip in the #21 Citgo Ford, spun in the grass coming off pit road during the pit stops for Pruett’s crash.  Sadler suffered damage tangling with Sterling Marlin on the Lap 120 restart, but returned to the track 113 laps down.

Between Bradberry and Sadler in 40th was to Adam Petty, who became the Cup Series’ first fourth-generation racer when he timed his #45 Sprint Chevrolet into the 33rd spot (unfortunately, father Kyle was one of the five drivers who missed the show, including Robby Gordon, Dave Marcis, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., and Todd Bodine).  The youngest Petty managed to avoid all seven wrecks that started the race, but the engine let go after 215 circuits.  Petty was set to run a handful more races in 2000, but Texas proved to be his only Cup start.  Just over a month later, Petty tragically lost his life in a Busch Series practice crash at Loudon.  He was only 19.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went on to win the DirecTV 500 for his first Cup Series victory.  He’d claimed his first Busch Series win there just two years earlier.

After the Texas race, Nadeau began to improve.  He scored three-straight Top 20 finishes at Martinsville, Talladega, and Fontana, then broke through at Charlotte in May.  He was one of the biggest stories of The Winston All-Star Race, winning the 25-lap No Bull Sprint to transfer into the main event, where he came home 4th.  The following week in the 600, Nadeau’s patriotic paint scheme honoring the Coast Guard paced the field for 115 of 400 laps and was in position to win a rain-shortened victory.  But when the rain stopped, the engine let go, leaving him a disappointing 38th.  Coming into the season finale at Atlanta, Nadeau had two top-five finishes and four Top Tens with a season-best 4th at Loudon and again in the Brickyard 400.  He started 2nd in the Atlanta race - again next to Jeff Gordon - and this time sealed the deal.  Nadeau paced the NAPA 500 field for 155 of 325 laps, passed Ward Burton on a late-race restart, and held off Dale Earnhardt in the final points race the #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet would finish under power.

In the two seasons that followed, “The Fury From Danbury” continued to show flashes of brilliance with Hendrick.  Atlanta remained one of his best venues - he was leading in the final laps of both 2001 races before Kevin Harvick’s rally in the spring and an empty fuel tank in the fall dropped him back.  He also continued to run strong on the road courses, finishing in the Top Ten at Sonoma in 2000 and Watkins Glen in 2001.  But after the spring race at Richmond in 2002, one week after new teammate Jimmie Johnson scored his inaugural victory at Fontana, Nadeau was released by Hendrick, replaced by Joe Nemechek.  No one knew at the time that Richmond would see the end of Nadeau’s career just one year later.

Once again, Nadeau was called as a relief driver, this time for Johnny Benson, Jr. at Charlotte, reuniting him with MB2 Motorsports for the first time since 1999.  At Sonoma, he was brought in by Petty Enterprises to replace Buckshot Jones on the road course.  That race, the Dodge / Save Mart 350, came to symbolize Nadeau’s career.  The #44 Georgia-Pacific / Brawny Dodge remained mid-pack for much of the day, the left-front fender caved in.  After a spin on Lap 68, the team knew they had to parlay pit strategy to get the best run they could.  When the final caution flew on Lap 85, Nadeau stayed out with a half-dozen others, suddenly placing him 2nd behind his former team owner Bill Elliott.  Three laps later, Nadeau passed Elliott and zipped to a lead of several seconds.  Ricky Rudd and Tony Stewart, both on fresh tires, clawed their way through the others who stayed out, but it seemed neither would catch Nadeau in time.  Then, coming to the white flag, Nadeau’s rear gear seized up in Turn 11, and the #44 stopped, handing the lead and the win to Rudd.

In 2003, Nadeau rejoined MB2 yet again in the team that was once the #36 M&M’s machine of Ken Schrader.  Schrader and M&M’s left at the end of the year, and the U.S. Army signed with the team, renumbering it #01 as part of the “Army of One” campaign.  When the series returned to Texas, the team had started to gel, starting 5th and finishing 4th.  Nadeau also continued to show a flair for the dramatic, pulling a 360 spin out of 2nd at Darlington without hitting the wall or another car.

Nadeau came to Richmond just 34th in points, but in practice, disaster struck.  The #01 spun in Turn 1 and slammed the unprotected concrete wall driver’s side first.  He survived, but only just.  The serious head, lung, and rib injuries he suffered put an abrupt end to his driving career.  Today, Nadeau is involved in the B.R.A.K.E.S. program in North Carolina, and has been a mentor to new racers, including current Sprint Cup rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #25 in a Cup Series race since November 2, 1997, when Ricky Craven’s #25 Budweiser Chevrolet crashed after 39 laps of the Dura Lube 500 presented by K-Mart at the Phoenix International Raceway.
*Neither Nadeau nor the #25 had ever before finished last in a Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

43) #25-Jerry Nadeau / 110 laps / crash
42) #10-Johnny Benson, Jr. / 143 laps / crash
41) #41-Gary Bradberry / 165 laps / crash
40) #45-Adam Petty / 215 laps / engine
39) #21-Elliott Sadler / 221 laps / running

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