Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Dale Earnhardt Gets Beat at His Own Game at Pocono

As Pocono Raceway celebrates its 50th racing season, we asked race fans about the most memorable races at the Tricky Triangle over the years. The poll winner by a landslide: the 2000 Pocono 500. Editor’s note: this content is sponsored by Pocono Raceway in collaboration with Frontstretch.

The back bumper must have looked like it was a mile wide. 500 grueling miles at Pocono, and it all came down to this one last chance.

Pocono favors veteran racers. It’s hard to set up for, hard to get around and hard to endure over three hours under the summer sun. Veteran racers know how much to sacrifice in one corner to make the others work, how to send a car through the three different corners and over the jarring bumps, time after time, 200 times around.

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As those 200 laps wound down, the leader was no stranger to winning by any means. Dale Earnhardt held point, a driver who had won seven titles on the strength of his never-back-down attitude, even when it meant moving other drivers out of the way, often in a memorable manner.

And now, Earnhardt could smell victory like blood in the water. The white flag was in the air, and there was only one challenger left. So Earnhardt made the bumper of that ominous black No. 3 wider with every corner, until, as the cars entered the final turn, it was clear there was only one way he could be beaten that day: by his own signature move.

The Race

Pushed to Monday due to rain, the 2000 Pocono 500 almost rolled off without Geoff Bodine, who was asleep until the cars were about to roll off, and Scott Pruett, who stalled on pit road during pace laps — a couple of odd footnotes before the event really got started.

Rusty Wallace started on the pole and looked like he had the car to beat from the get-go. He led the first 21 laps until the caution flew for Wally Dallenbach. Wallace’s teammate, Jeremy Mayfield, started 22nd but strategized his way to the front with a two-tire stop, a short-lived four-lap stint until Wallace took over once again.

Wallace was the class of the field for most of the first half. A few other drivers took turns at the point during pit cycles, and Mike Skinner and Tony Stewart each led a stint, but despite a car that was a bit tight, Wallace was looking like a contender.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, had an unscheduled stop early for a flat tire, almost losing a lap before the caution for Dallenbach kept him from going a lap down. In the days before the free pass, getting a lost lap back at Pocono could be a daunting task. Earnhardt entered the day second in points, still very much in the conversation for a record eighth title.

Mayfield caught a stroke of luck on lap 72, when he came to pit road just as the caution flew for debris, a large piece of metal on the track. That put him out in front after the rest of the field pitted under yellow. Mayfield led a handful of laps before the faster cars of Stewart and Wallace got back around him.

Wallace retook the lead just past halfway and held point for 46 laps, but was tight in the late going. After pit stops, Stewart took over as frontrunner, leading by almost three seconds with under 20 laps to go when the caution flew for Mike Bliss’ spin on lap 184. That, as they say, changed everything.

The leaders poured onto pit road with just 15 laps to go. Earnhardt and Mayfield took two tires, as did leader Stewart — but he stalled it briefly. Earnhardt had a great stop and came out with the lead, Mayfield second and Stewart fell to fourth.

The restart came with just 12 laps to go. Earnhardt had an advantage leaders don’t today: lapped cars to his inside and Mayfield tucked in behind him.

Mayfield reported a sluggish engine as the race went on, but on the final restart, he stayed with Earnhardt, about five car lengths back, as the two pulled away from the field slightly.

Behind them, the Robert Yates-owned cars of Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd tried to run them down after Stewart slipped on the restart. Wallace, on four tires, was mired far enough back that he would not be a factor.

Earnhardt held steady as the laps ticked away. 10 to go, five. Mayfield dogged him, five to 10 car lengths off his bumper, trying to keep his tires cool enough to make a late run or to take advantage of a rare Earnhardt mistake.

Three to go. Two to go. White flag.

Earnhardt led through turn 1 and the infamous tunnel turn, Mayfield stalking him. One corner left, and Earnhardt was making that black No. 3 racecar look like it was a mile wide. 

Earnhardt and Mayfield bore down on turn 3.

By the Numbers

Race winner: Mayfield

Runner-up: Jarrett

Rookie of the Race: Matt Kenseth

Margin of victory: 0.581 seconds

Time of race: 3:34:41

Cautions: 5 for 21 laps

Lead changes: 24 among 11 drivers

Lead lap finishers: 20

Running at finish: 33 of 43

DNQ: Darrell Waltrip, Dwayne Leik, Bill Baird

Notable: Of the 10 drivers who failed to finish, a whopping eight DNFs were due to engine failures. The failures were across all manufacturers: Three Chevrolets, three Fords and two Pontiacs.

Joe Nemechek wore a special helmet for Fathers’ Day — with the handprint of his son, John Hunter, on the side. John Hunter Nemechek now races for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Kerry Earnhardt won the ARCA Menards Series race at Pocono that weekend.

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Why Fans Are Still Talking About It

As the cars roared toward turn 3 for the final time, Mayfield closed the gap until he was right on Earnhardt’s bumper. He looked to the outside.

Earnhardt blocked. 

Mayfield looked to the inside.

Earnhardt blocked.

But Mayfield didn’t let up. He laid the front bumper of his Team Penske Ford to the back of Earnhardt’s Chevy. And, as the result of a perfectly-executed bump-and-run, Earnhardt washed up the track.

Mayfield drove right on through and off the corner to the checkers, Jarrett and Rudd in tow. Earnhardt finished fourth, out-Earnhardt-ed with a move he’d perfected over the years by Mayfield.

With grudging respect (as well as seething anger), Earnhardt pulled up alongside Mayfield on the cool-down with a one-fingered salute.

It wasn’t just what Mayfield did in turn 3 that cemented the race in NASCAR lore, though, it was what he said afterward. When asked about it in victory lane, Mayfield said coyly, “I just wanted to rattle his cage a little bit.”

An obvious reference to Earnhardt’s win at Bristol Motor Speedway the previous year during which he crashed Terry Labonte on the final lap, it was the comment that cemented Mayfield’s place in NASCAR lore.

And Earnhardt? When asked what he’d gestured to Mayfield on the cool-down lap, Earnhardt said as only he could, “I told him he was number one.” And on that day, Mayfield certainly was.

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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DoninAjax

Who’d have thunk Jeremy would rattle Ironhead’s cage? Back when a race was a race with real “race” cars.

Echo

Yep, ” real race cars” .

Bill B

I remember that race well. It was back when I’d waste a vacation day to watch a race that was rained out on Sunday. Yes a real race, with real cars, and rules that didn’t bend to increase the entertainment factor.

DoninAjax

It’s on YouTube!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhKJ08tMxD0

I feel spoiled when I watch telecasts of real races by a network that knows how to televise it.

JD in NC

During the summer of 2001, I stopped by Lowe’s Hardware to see Mike Skinner’s show car. I was talking to the guy that was hauling Skinner’s car around and he said after Mayfield moved Dale out of the way, Earnhardt came into the infield garage and was fuming, he stood staring at the wall for a minute and then cracked a smile and said, ” I’ve done that a million times” and then he was over it. I have no way to verify whether that’s a true story and I’ve long since forgotten the name of the RCR employee hauling around Skinner’s car, but he did say he’d know Dale for a long time. I hope it’s true since it adds an interesting addendum to the Pocono story.

DoninAjax

Nobody complained about FIVE HUNDRED MILES at Pocono in 2000! When did that start?

Bill B

Or Dover.

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