If the ending was almost a foregone conclusion, the beginning was chaos.
The point leader got wrecked on the pace laps. The runner-up got black-flagged as a result. Engines detonated left and right.
And the most popular driver won for a team still hanging on to its glory days.
It was 2002, and the NASCAR Cup Series visited Talladega Superspeedway for the second time that season. The race had major title implications: going in, the point leader set a record that has not been broken since, and coming out, the leader would go on to win his first title.
But none of those are the reason this race is, looking back, a significant one. In an age when superspeedway racing means a near-guarantee of multi-car crashes, the 2002 EA Sports 500 featured none. One car dropped out due to damage, but the race will go down as the last race at Talladega to run caution-free from start to finish.
The race itself was clean, almost tame by Talladega standards. It was before the green flag when things got weird.
Rain had washed out qualifying, and the field was set by the rule book, based on owner points. That put the point leader, rookie Jimmie Johnson, on the pole to start, with veteran racer Mark Martin to his outside.
On the second of three warm-up laps, Martin appeared to turn the wheel to scrub his tires, but his No. 6 Roush Racing Ford didn’t weave back and forth. Instead, it rode up toward the outside wall and then veered sharply to the left, collecting Johnson’s No. 48 and causing extensive damage.
Martin was black-flagged while NASCAR made certain he didn’t have a lingering steering issue. He didn’t (his team later surmised that something had stuck briefly in the steering mechanism and then dislodged when Martin hit Johnson), but he lost a lap while they checked and the field took the green flag. Johnson did start the race but immediately came to pit road for a tire rub.
Johnson’s crew chief, newly minted NASCAR Hall of Famer Chad Knaus, was visibly and vocally frustrated as he said a NASCAR official told him (incorrectly) that if Johnson pitted before the green to perhaps save his lap, he’d be held a lap. That rule only applied to pitting for fuel, but the damage was done.
The cars ran in one big pack early, though not as tight as we see these days. It was easier to drive from the back to the front with the fourth-generation racecar than it is today, and drivers moved forward and back and forward again with seeming ease.
The one driver to bow out early due to damage was Jay Sauter, whose lap 46 incident didn’t even cause a slowdown in the action.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed his strength early and often. He first took his Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Chevrolet to the lead on lap 18 and led six times for a race-high 56 of 188 laps. The only other driver to lead more than 30 laps was Kurt Busch in Jack Roush’s No. 97.
With 63 laps to go, the engine in Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 gave up the ghost. That in itself wasn’t unusual at the time. It spelled a bad points day for Gordon, who slipped from fourth to sixth in the standings.
But 12 laps later, Ken Schrader, driving the No. 36 Chevrolet, suffered an engine failure. His teammate Johnny Benson Jr. fell victim to the same fate 11 laps after that. Schrader and Benson both had Hendrick Motorsports engines in their cars just like Jeff Gordon.
As Earnhardt asserted his dominance, leading the final 39 laps, anxiety ramped up for the Hendrick drivers remaining.
And for good reason.
On lap 155, Hendrick driver Joe Nemechek went to the garage with an engine failure. Nine laps later, teammate Terry Labonte took the No. 5 behind the wall. The last engine to go south was the No. 48, putting an exclamation point on Johnson’s woes for the day.
But nobody could run with Earnhardt anyway. His No. 8 led a line of cars at the front of the field, and whether nobody in the lead pack was able to organize enough of a line to make a charge or the car at the time didn’t allow a group to close fast enough, the end of the race was all Earnhardt, all the time.
Earnhardt’s win was the seventh of his career and a record-tying third straight at Talladega (Buddy Baker also had three straight wins). Earnhardt went on to win the 2003 spring race at Talladega for a track-record fourth straight time before the luster began to fade at DEI.
By the Numbers
Race winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Runner-up: Tony Stewart
Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson (field set by points)
Rookie of the Race: Ryan Newman
Margin of victory: 0.118 seconds
Time of race: 2:43:22
Lead changes: 35 among 12 drivers
Lead lap finishers: 22/43
Running at finish: 36/43
DNQ: Morgan Shepherd, Kerry Earnhardt, Robert Pressley, Geoffrey Bodine
Notable: The race featured four sets of brothers: Terry and Bobby Labonte; Ward and Jeff Burton; Brett and Todd Bodine (Geoffrey DNQ); and Rusty, Mike and Kenny Wallace. Kerry Earnhardt also attempted to qualify, just missing a fifth set.
Five drivers in the race have sons currently racing in a NASCAR national series: Bill Elliott (Chase), Dave Blaney (Ryan), Jeff Burton (Harrison), Ward Burton (Jeb) and Joe Nemechek (John Hunter). Kerry Earnhardt (Jeffrey) would have made six.
The only driver in the field who raced full time in the Cup Series in 2023 was Harvick. Newman and Johnson ran limited Cup schedules this season while Earnhardt has a pair of Xfinity Series races for 2023.
Why fans are still talking about it
Surprisingly, the stranger-than-fiction pace laps incident is just the tip of the iceberg.
Earnhardt was riding a wave on the superspeedways in his still-young career, even as the edges at DEI were beginning to show a little wear, a little of the strain that would see the team fall from grace and then from the landscape a few years later. He was beginning a run as the perpetual most popular driver, a young man still attempting to strike his own course in NASCAR after the death of his father in 2001.
Earnhardt wasn’t the only driver working on a NASCAR record that week. Johnson entered the day as the points leader, the only rookie in Cup Series history to do so and without the benefit of a playoff reset. He took his lumps at Talladega and lost the lead, but that accomplishment was the harbinger of a legendary career.
Runner-up Stewart took over the point lead that day, his only finish of better than 29th on a superspeedway that year — his only finish on a superspeedway that year. Stewart never relinquished the standings lead, winning the first of his three titles that year.
Not a yellow flag flew that day. In the 42 Talladega races since, there has been an average of just over seven cautions. A few of them are stage cautions, but the days where the race could run flag-to-flag with no cautions for an incident may be behind us, at least until NASCAR comes up with a racecar that can break up the big packs.
Twenty-one years ago, NASCAR proved the cautions could be avoided. It’s something fans have not seen since.
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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