Jerry Nadeau Wins NAPA 500 Race
HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ Jerry Nadeau seemingly came out of nowhere to win his first NASCAR Winston Cup race. Hardly.
He’s been hanging around for a while _ living in a motor home that he could take from track to track, scraping together $15,000 to buy a minor-league ride that might get him noticed, bouncing around to three different back-marker teams once he made it to Winston Cup.
``I waited a long time for this,″ Nadeau said Monday after winning the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the final race of the year. ``Perseverance pays, I guess. I had to find the right people.″
He landed this year with Hendrick Motorsports. Suddenly, Nadeau found himself sharing a garage with a couple of former Winston Cup champions, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte.
Still, it took a whole year to get used to racing with such a high-profile team.
``It’s the best of everything,″ Nadeau said. ``You’ve got to run a whole different routine. I was used to running all out. I wrecked a lot of cars. Now, I’ve gained so more patience.″
After finishing no better than fourth coming to Atlanta, the 30-year-old native of Danbury, Conn., finally broke through.
``There’s going to be a lot more of this in the future,″ Nadeau vowed.
His Chevrolet Monte Carlo was clearly the strongest car in the NAPA 500, postponed a day by rain. Still, he needed a great restart with seven laps to go before cruising to a 1.338-second victory over Dale Earnhardt.
Nadeau averaged 141.295 mph in finally winning in his 103rd Winston Cup start.
It was the final race for Darrell Waltrip, who is retiring to the broadcast booth after 29 years on the track.
Waltrip had an inglorious finish to his Winston Cup career, starting last in the 43-car field and finishing 34th _ seven laps behind the winner.
``No one will ever be able to fill Darrell Waltrip’s shoes,″ Nadeau said. ``But to win my first race in his last race is pretty neat.″
The day began with an emotional send-off to Waltrip, whose daughters, Jessica and Sarah, commanded over the public address system, ``Daddy, start you engine.″
Then, ol’ D.W. was allowed to take a ceremonial lap at the front of the field before sliding into line at the back of the pack. The same honor was given Richard Petty when he drove into retirement at the same track in 1992.
``I’m brokenhearted,″ Waltrip said. ``It’s hard to believe, man, that I ain’t going to do this no more.″
His final season was dubbed ``Victory Tour 2000″ but the 53-year-old Waltrip never came close to the winner’s circle.
Still, he ended his 29-year racing career with 84 victories _ tied with Bobby Allison for the third-highest in Winston Cup history _ and three championships.
Despite Nadeau’s dominance _ he led 155 of the 325 laps _ Ward Burton came out of a series of late pits stops with a sizable advantage.
``We were good on the long runs,″ Burton said. ``It was our race to lose or win at that point.″
But the yellow flag came out on lap 312, the result of Scott Pruett spinning in the backstretch. Nadeau dove inside on the restart and Burton couldn’t hold off the challenge, winding up third.
Nadeau became the fourth first-time winner this season, tying the modern-era record set in 1988 and following Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park in victory lane.
Also, Nadeau was the 14th different winner in the 34-race season, equaling the record set three times, most recently in 1991.
``I knew I had the car to win the race,″ said Nadeau, who celebrated by scorching his tires in front of the main grandstand. ``It was a perfect, perfect day.″
Nadeau’s best previous finish was fourth. With the victory, he made the biggest jump in the standings, moving up to 20th and earning the last invitation to the season-ending banquet in New York next month.
Earnhardt, a seven-time series champion, passed Burton to take second in the race. The Intimidator also got by another Burton, Jeff, to take second in the season point standings, his best showing since 1995.
Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon was fourth and Bobby Labonte, who already had clinched the Winston Cup championship, held on for fifth.
Jeff Burton slipped to third in the points after placing 12th in the season finale.
There were 23 lead changes among 13 drivers on the 1.54-mile oval. Ward Burton led 96 laps, the only other driver in front for more than 17 laps.
The nine-month-long Winston Cup season was extended an extra day when rain forced a postponement. The drivers took the green under sunny skies, but the frigid, 38-degree temperature made some cars difficult to handle in the early laps.
Several top contenders _ Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart _ didn’t finish.