Thursday, July 14, 2016

7/11/99: Loudon the scene of Dale Jr.’s first NASCAR last-place finish

SOURCE: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On July 11, 1999, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Jiffy Lube 300 at the New Hampshire International Speedway when his #8 Budweiser Chevrolet fell out with ignition trouble after 44 of 300 laps.  The finish came in Earnhardt, Jr.’s 2nd series start.

By 1999, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) had been active in NASCAR’s top three divisions for fifteen years.  Dale Earnhardt himself made the team’s first start in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series (now XFINITY) in 1984, when he finished 4th in the Mello Yello 300.  DEI was also there for the inaugural Truck Series race in 1995 with Ron Hornaday, Jr.  In 1996, DEI made its first Cup start with none other than all-time last-place leader Jeff Green, who came home 36th of 41 starters in the #14 Racing For Kids Chevrolet.  That same year, 21-year-old Earnhardt, Jr. made his Busch Series debut at Myrtle Beach, finishing 14th in the #31 Mom ‘n’ Pops Chevrolet.

In 1997, Earnhardt, Jr. continued to hone is skills in the Busch Series, racing alongside his DEI teammate Steve Park in the flagship #3 AC-Delco Chevrolet.  With three wins and a 3rd-place finish in the standings behind him, Park was moved up to Cup in 1998, where he’d drive the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet.  Only then did Earnhardt, Jr. drive his father’s famous number.  The second-generation driver impressed, scoring seven wins in 31 starts en route to the 1998 Busch Series title.  But unlike Park, who struggled following injuries suffered in a practice crash at Atlanta, Earnhardt, Jr. wouldn’t run full-time Cup in 1999.  He’d run five Cup races on top of his second full Busch season, then go for Rookie of the Year in 2000.  Sponsorship would come from Budweiser, which was in its final year backing Hendrick Motorsports and Wally Dallenbach, Jr.  Earnhardt, Jr.’s Cup debut would come at the Coca-Cola 600 followed by Loudon, Michigan, Richmond, and the season finale at Atlanta.

The 600 wasn’t the first time Earnhardt, Jr. raced his father in a Cup car.  That would come on November 22, 1998 during the NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi exhibition race at Japan’s 1.549-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval.  Father and son would both drive cars sponsored by Coca-Cola.  The crowd of 41,000 saw Earnhardt, Jr.’s #1 car finish 6th - two spots ahead of father.  The Intimidator got him back in his son’s 600 debut: Earnhardt finished 6th while his son’s bright red Budweiser Chevrolet finished a respectable 16th.  Next on Earnhardt, Jr.’s schedule was Loudon.

Coming into the Jiffy Lube 300, Earnhardt, Jr. was once again steaming toward the Busch Series title.  He’d just won three races a row at Dover, South Boston, and Watkins Glen, wrestling the point lead away from his friendly rival Matt Kenseth.  But Earnhardt, Jr.’s second-worst finish of the season had come at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where in May, Jason Keller spun him from 7th with six laps to go, leaving him 34th.  Now, with an off-weekend before the next Busch race at Myrtle Beach, Earnhardt, Jr. could focus on his next Cup start.

Earnhardt, Jr. qualified 13th for the 300-miler at a speed of 129.710 mph, putting him right alongside his father in 14th.  As with his other Cup starts in 1999, Earnhardt, Jr.’s rear decklid had a decal of the track with the name, date, and his signature in the middle.  Four drivers missed the race: Robert Pressle in Doug Bawel’s #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford, the Bahari’ Racing #30 Jimmy Dean Pontiac of Derrike Cope, David Green, whose Kodiak sponsor moved to Dick Trickle’s #91 Chevrolet following Green’s DNQ in the Larry Hedrick-owned #41, and veteran Dave Marcis with his #71 RealTree Camouflage Chevrolet.

Starting 43rd in the race was Ted Musgrave, who in 1999 took over for Rick Mast driving Butch Mock’s #75 Remington Arms Ford.  Sent to the rear to join him was Bill Elliott, who was sent to a backup car following a crash in second-round qualifying.  Elliott was supposed to run a special paint scheme on his #94 McDonald’s Ford, but the team couldn’t change the decals on the backup before the race.  By Lap 9, both Elliott and Musgrave had moved past Brett Bodine, who held 43rd in his own #11 Paychex Ford.  Bodine’s was also the first car to be lapped by race leader Bobby Labonte on Lap 36.

Earnhardt, Jr., meanwhile, was running in the 11th spot.  On the first lap, his father had rooted him out of the groove in Turn 3 and slipped by, but he’d managed to pass him back with a run down the backstretch.  Then on Lap 42, Earnhardt, Jr. came down pit road for an unscheduled stop, saying the car lacked speed on the straightaways, and that something was binding up in the transmission.  The crew took a look under the rear of the car, then sent him back out four laps down in last place.  He came back in a lap later, saying the car only had 7000rpm.  The crew looked under the hood at the spark plug wires, but still couldn’t diagnose the problem on pit road.  Eventually, the #8 was pushed behind the wall, out for the day with electrical issues.  Earnhardt, Jr. had never before finished last in Cup or Busch competition.

Finishing 42nd that day was outside-polesitter Rusty Wallace, whose #2 Miller Lite Harley-Davidson Ford wrecked on Lap 141.  Kyle Petty started 5th and ran near the front with teammate John Andretti in the early laps, but his #44 Hot Wheels Pontiac broke a rear end after 190 laps.  Dave Blaney, soon to join Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth for the 2000 Rookie of the Year battle, crashed his #93 Amoco Pontiac on Lap 195.  Rounding out the group with an engine failure was Hut Stricklin, who was making his first start in SBIII Racing’s #58 Turbine Solutions Ford, a car previously driven by Ricky Craven and Loy Allen, Jr.

The rest of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career to the present day is well-known and hardly needs to be reprinted here.  Heading into this Sunday’s race at Loudon, however, the track remains one of eleven where Earnhardt, Jr. does not yet have a Cup victory.  He finished a career-best 3rd there in the fall of 2004, but two years later scored a second last-place finish when his engine let go after 134 laps.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #8 in a Cup Series race since June 14, 1998, when Morgan Shepherd’s turn in the Stavola Brothers’ #8 Circuit City Chevrolet ended with electrical issues after 66 laps of the Miller Lite 400 at Michigan.  The number had never before finished last in a Cup race at Loudon.

43) #8-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 44 laps / ignition
42) #2-Rusty Wallace / 144 laps / crash
41) #44-Kyle Petty / 190 laps / rear end
40) #93-Dave Blaney / 193 laps / crash
39) #58-Hut Stricklin / 193 laps / engine

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