He didn’t have a chance. Mired in traffic, the finish line nearly in sight, and half the field in front of him, there just wasn’t time… Until he found a way.
Every move had to be the right one, perfectly timed, or it was over. But every move was perfect. And when they came to the line, there he was: the winner. Everyone watching was, for a moment, collectively stunned.
Had it really happened? He was so far back…
It happened last Saturday (May 7) for a chestnut thoroughbred named Rich Strike. The horse was the longest of long shots in the 2022 Kentucky Derby, not even in the field until the 11th hour. He had no clear racing lane, making his stretch run even more unlikely. And yet, he had speed when it was needed and, perhaps more importantly, he had heart.
Rich Strike’s unlikely victory has played out in NASCAR as well over the years. Wendell Scott’s lone Cup Series win at Jacksonville, Fla. back in 1963 comes to mind. There have been numerous Daytona 500 upsets: Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Trevor Bayne (2011) and Michael McDowell (2021) along with Paul Menard’s 2011 surprise in the Brickyard 400.
But Rich Strike’s stretch run is more reminiscent of another famous NASCAR finish.
Dale Earnhardt was hardly an underdog that day as the race began. Not with 75 wins already under his belt. Not the man who could, at least in legend, see the air at superspeedways.
Yet as the race unfolded under a bright blue October sky in 2000, Earnhardt’s chances at Talladega, Ala. looked poor. Mired deep in the field, sitting in 18th place with just four laps to go and the field fairly strung out, it looked more likely that his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., would be racing for the checkered flag instead.
Earnhardt Jr. was leading what wasn’t a typical Talladega race. There had been few cautions, just one for a multi-car incident that collected only four cars. The final rundown shows more teams out of the race for engine failures than for crashes.
Yet the 43-car field ran much of the day as if they were under a blanket. The 2000 rules package NASCAR had chosen for superspeedways had an incredible amount of drag, thanks to both a small roof spoiler and a small lip, called a wicker bill, on the top of the rear spoiler. Cars could make bold moves, but they needed help, and the pack, late in the game, didn’t look particularly organized.
As his father languished, sitting mid-pack, Earnhardt Jr. led with most of the field still single-file on the bottom of the track.
Coming to four to go, Earnhardt Sr. was running the bottom. There was no yellow-line rule then and the No. 3 was running right on the line. Earnhardt moved up a tick, preparing for the corner, and touched the No. 60, driven by Rich Bickle. Bickle shot up and bumped Rusty Wallace.
Today, as unstable as the cars are in the air, that would have been more than enough to trigger a pileup. In this case, all three continued on.
The field ahead of Earnhardt Sr. got aggressive, running three wide with four to go. Rookie Matt Kenseth had a moment, setting his inside tires in the infield grass for a split second before squeezing back on track. But he held his No. 17 steady.
With three to go, Richard Childress Racing driver Mike Skinner led Earnhardt Jr. and held off a hard-charging John Andretti.
Entering the lap, Earnhardt had snuck up to around 10th and the field, while still disorganized, was no longer single-file. The pack split into what was little more than chaos, cars four and even five wide.
These days, that would have spelled disaster. But that race, everyone hung on.
Coming to two laps remaining, Skinner still held point with Earnhardt Jr. behind him. The field remained in disorder, but now… Earnhardt was on the move.
The black No. 3 shot up the middle until there was no more middle, only the outside line, and pulled even with his teammate’s blue No. 31. All of a sudden, out of nowhere… he was there.
As they passed the two-to-go mark, Earnhardt gained a slight advantage through turns 1 and 2. Skinner hung tough on the inside, a winless driver fighting tooth and nail for his own piece of the pie.
Somehow, Earnhardt pulled ahead. The No. 3 held the advantage as the white flag fluttered against the blue sky, gaining 17 spots to lead the race in the blink of an eye. His moves sparked a three-car breakaway, but what was in his rearview was a worst-case scenario: teammates. Kenny Wallace had pushed Earnhardt to the front, but now, the other Andy Petree car, Joe Nemechek, was right behind him. A two-car run, coordinated right, would be hard for Earnhardt to hold off.
Except… that run never came. Turns out Nemechek was running a special paint scheme and his usually-green car was a dark cherry red. In the heat of the moment, Wallace didn’t realize the car behind him would have been likely to follow and push him to a win. Up ahead, Earnhardt with a push was a shoo-in for them to finish top two; just about any other driver in the field would have picked the sure thing.
So Wallace didn’t make a move to pass Earnhardt, knowing the car behind him couldn’t pass them both on its own. Earnhardt flashed past the line for his 76th career win, the most unexpected of his triumphs at Talladega. Nobody knew it then, but it would also be his last in the Cup Series.
No, Earnhardt wasn’t the underdog that day, not really. But he was so deep in the field in those final laps that a win seemed near impossible.
Yet when they came to the line, there he was: the winner.
Watch the replay of the Derby and focus on Rich Strike as they come through the final turn.
Then watch the replay of that now long ago NASCAR day from October 2000. Perfect move after perfect move, until there was nothing in front of them but the finish line.
It’s nothing short of stunning.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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