Posted by Brandon Whitton – follow on twitter @whittonbm
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 - March 11, 2001 – Atlanta Motor Speedway
No matter when the race falls in the season, be it Spring, Summer, or Fall, fans flock to Hampton, Georgia for the action at the multi-grooved 1.54 mile Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The normal jubilation was also met with a tinge of tragedy for the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 on March 11, 2001. The racing community was still mourning as the Winston Cup Series marched on under one of the darkest times in the history of the sport. Drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper perished in 2000 from head injuries sustained in on track accidents. Hoping to move on from one of the deadliest seasons ever, all eyes were on Florida for the Daytona 500 and the start of a brand new multiyear, multibillion dollar television deal that would continue to launch the sport to new heights. Sadly, we all know what happened in turn 4 on the last lap of that race. 7 time champion Dale Earnhardt died from head injuries after hitting the wall. Team owner Richard Childress inverted the iconic paint scheme, changed the car number, and tabbed Bakersfield, CA native Kevin Harvick to replace the late Earnhardt. Only three weeks removed from the accident, the 25 year old rookie qualified the red and white #29 GM Goodwrench Chevy fifth, behind Bud Pole Winner Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Todd Bodine and Mark Martin.
Jarrett took off to a quick five car length lead, but just as fans were prepared to give the three finger salute on lap three, an honor to Earnhardt begun three weeks earlier, Jerry Nadeau spun the No.25 UAW-Delphi Chevy to bring out an early caution. He was helped by none other than Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver, and 2001 Daytona 500 champion, Michael Waltrip. Jarrett led the field back to green, but Harvick served notice that he was going to contend for the win, taking the top spot on lap 7 to lead his first laps in the series.
As the race progressed Nadeau, Jarrett, and Gordon traded the lead. 1995 World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney and his greatly improved No.93 Amoco Dodge led for 70 laps before a missing lug nut on his left rear tire forced him to pit from the lead.
Jumping ahead to the twilight of the race, Sterling Marlin’s No.40 Coors Light Dodge blew an engine with 26 laps remaining, spewing oil in turn 2 and down the backstretch, causing the eighth and final caution. The restart came with 21 laps to go with Nadeau leading Jarrett’s No.88 UPS Ford to the green flag. Nadeau maintained the lead, attempting to win at Atlanta for the second straight year, held Jarrett back by 3 car lengths. Gordon, however, was consistently the fastest car on track. With 10 laps to go, the top 5 were separated by a mere 1.5 seconds, which is absurdly close with cars topping 190MPH. Harvick began to attack, which bunched up the top 5, now separated by a scant .25 seconds. Nadeau, Jarrett and Harvick were three wide at the line with 5 laps remaining. Gordon continued his charge to the front, making quick work of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jarrett and eventually Nadeau, but Harvick was pulling away, looking to tie Bob Flock, Johnny Mantz, Bill Norton and Dan Gurney as the quickest winners in Cup history. The white flag unfurled, Gordon was pressing Harvick. As they entered turn 3, the slow car of Brett Bodine forced Harvick to take the high line, Gordon pursued on the bottom. Exiting turn 4, both cars were fender to fender. In a photo finish reminiscent of the year before, the Richard Childress Racing car took the victory by 0.006 seconds in one of the closest finishes in racing history. The Goodwrench crew celebrated with tears in their eyes on pit road. Chocolate Myers, Earnhardt’s long time gas man, openly wept. The crowd of 135,000 exploded in celebration as Harvick performed a superb burnout at the finish line, then took a Polish victory lap with the three finger salute to the fans. As Mike Joy said in the booth, choking back tears, “As the fans saluted Dale with the number three on the third lap, Kevin Harvick salutes them on the way to victory lane. What could be more fitting, what could be more special? If you believe in storybook endings folks, this is one for the books.”