Looking Back at History: Dale Earnhardt's Final Win at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Harvick's First Win in Earnhardt's Car
The following is the fourth and final part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the March 8th Kobalt Tools 500.
HAMPTON, Ga. (Feb. 26, 2009) -- There are few events in sports that excite fans more than seeing two drivers coming off Turn Four at Atlanta Motor Speedway charging wheel-to-wheel toward a flagman leaning out over the track, holding a coiled checkered flag as a 500-mile marathon boils down to a quarter-mile drag race.
Atlanta Motor Speedway has seen it share of those dramatic moments in the 99 Cup races the track has hosted. Since NASCAR adopted electronic scoring in 1993, two of the seven closest finishes, all of them .01 seconds or less, have come at Atlanta, where the Sprint Cup Series will run its 100th Cup race, the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 6-8.
It's no surprise that one of those close finishes involved the late Dale Earnhardt, the all-time win leader at AMS. It came in the spring race of 2000. Earnhardt's Richard Childress Racing teammate Mike Skinner led the most laps that day, 191 circuits, but fell out of the running with a blown engine.
As the laps wound down, Earnhardt led, but Bobby Labonte, now the active win leader at AMS with six victories, was charging hard at the end. As the duo approached the checkered flag, Labonte drove his Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac to the inside of Earnhardt's familiar black No. 3 Chevrolet, but Earnhardt held on to win by inches - .01 seconds according to the official clock.
It would be Earnhardt's ninth and final win at AMS and the next-to-last of his 76 Cup victories, the final one coming at Talladega later in 2000.
When the Cup circuit arrived at Atlanta the next March, the sport was reeling from the loss of Earnhardt in a crash at Daytona. His black Chevys had been painted white, re-numbered 29, and a raw rookie, Kevin Harvick, had been given the intimidating chore of driving the cars.
With just a few laps remaining in his first Cup race at Atlanta, Harvick found himself in the same position as Earnhardt the year before -- holding on to the lead while a challenger, this time Jeff Gordon, closed on his bumper. Once again, the leader held on, this time by a margin of just .006 seconds.
Some say fate played a role in the outcome that time. Harvick says maybe not. He says close finishes aren't surprising at AMS because the layout of the racing surface lends itself to them.
"The track gives you a lot of options to move around," he said. "When you get behind or the guy's taking your line in front of you, from the top to the bottom of the race track it gives you a chance. That's why you see so many of those races play out like they do."
Carl Edwards, who participated in a similar finish in 2005, beating Jimmie Johnson with a last-lap pass to get his first Cup win by a scant .028 seconds, agrees with Harvick.
"I'd say you could probably get by a guy on the bottom too," he said. "Jimmie was on the bottom, so I took the outside."
Both winning cars from 2000 and 2001 were owned by Richard Childress, who like many in the sport finds it difficult to explain the similarities in the way those two races turned out.
"It's so incredible," he said. "We have both of those cars in the museum. We have the video from both of them, and it's almost scary when you sit there and listen to the commentary and listen to how Dale won the race, and then to watch the video and listen to the commentary on the 29 [Harvick] and the 24 [Gordon] and look at how much each one beat the other by. It's really eerie how it is. It's one of those things that 'How could it be?'"
Childress said he had the same feeling both years as he watched the battles unfold.
"The last couple of laps when Kevin was out there running and when Jeff made that run on him I thought it was over," he said. "Same with Bobby, but Dale had enough momentum on the top to beat him."
Childress said he believes AMS' layout tends to favor the driver on the outside groove in a last-lap shootout.
"You just build up a lot of momentum up there and it shoots you down the straightaway," he said. "If you're on the bottom, you'd better have a lot of grip."
The 2000 AMS win is often ranked as one of Earnhardt's Top 10 victories, a decision that Childress backs "because of the way he won it."
But Childress also looks at the win as evidence that Earnhardt had a lot of racing left in him at that point in his career.
"We finished second in points in 2000 [to Bobby Labonte] and had a heck of a year," he said. "Coming into 2001 we were as prepared to win the championship as we ever had been. Dale and I talked about it off and on that winter and even during the  Daytona 500 week and when he was at Daytona running the road race."
He said the proof of that preparation was the fact that a rookie Harvick in just his third Cup start took Earnhardt's car and beat the veteran Jeff Gordon.
"That and the fact that Kevin missed a race and still finished ninth in points and won two races," he said.
But the real significance of that 2001 win at Atlanta was that it helped NASCAR get on the road to recovery from losing Earnhardt.
"The thing I remember about 2001 other than losing Dale was Steve Park winning Rockingham [in a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car] and Kevin coming back and winning Atlanta in the style he did," Childress said. "That was the medicine the race fans and all of us needed."
With a strong possibility for another memorable ending, NASCAR's best drivers return to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 8. Tickets are priced as low as $39 and student tickets start at $19. To purchase your tickets, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at 877-9-AMS-TIX (877-926-7849) or 770-946-4211, visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com, or contact your local Ticketmaster retailer.