Sunday, March 2, 1997 – The Pontiac Excitement 400 at RIR was nothing less than exciting on a crisp, sunny Sunday afternoon. While some folks may remember it as the last regularly-scheduled day race at RIR before moving to a night-races-only schedule for the next eighteen years, others are probably more familiar with the on-track action that took place that day.
After starting 7th, Rusty Wallace tangled early with Ricky Rudd on lap 6, immediately putting him all the way in the back of the field.
371 consecutive green flag laps later – yes, you read that right – without any help from a caution flag, Rusty working his way through traffic all the way up to P1.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett controlled much of the first half of the race, especially Jarrett who racked up 172 laps led over the course of the 400-lap event, until Rusty jumped back on the scene to take over the lead on lap 159. The two battled it out for the next 43 laps when Jarrett finally snatched it back.
At that point, it looked like Jarrett might be able to hold on to the lead for the rest of the race, even with the momentum clearly in Rusty’s favor less than 100 laps ago. But, during Jarrett’s final green flag pit stops he lost nine seconds due to dropped lug nuts, costing him the lead and putting Rusty back in prime position for the checkered flag.
Remember now, the last – and only – caution flag up ‘til now flew back on lap 6. With 19 laps remaining in the race, Kenny Wallace’s engine blew, giving Jarrett a huge break, much to his brother’s chagrin. At this point, there were only four cars still on the lead lap: Rusty, Jarrett, Geoff Bodine, and Ernie Irvan.
In the top spot one lap down, Jeff Gordon connected with Irvan while trying to line up for the restart. Seven laps later, Irvan hit the wall in Turn 4 hard with a cut tire, for which he blamed Gordon.
Later, Rusty would say: “I was real surprised at Gordon. He might have thought he was racing for the win. I don't know. I've never seen anybody race like that with the leaders when he's a lap down, but he did."
Back to lap 398 – we’ve got three to go ‘til the end, putting Rusty, Jarrett, and Bodine in a three-car shootout for the win. Rusty’s long history of short-track racing served him well – he smoked Jarrett to hold on to the lead.
"You think about those old short-track days," Wallace said. "I laid back about a car length and a half, and, just about the time I thought [Jarrett] was going to pick it up, I nailed it. It worked out perfect."
Jarett would claim a third-place finish, after losing both the chance at the win and a rough battle with Bodine for second.
"Rusty just got the best of me there," Jarrett said. "I thought I had a good start. I saw him drop back and try to get a run on the restart. I thought I had him, [because I] had him slowed down. I just messed up. It's my fault we didn't win the race.”
Don’t feel too bad for Jarrett thought, he returned to the fall race at RIR with a vengeance. On top of winning the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, his average speed of 109.047 easily topped Rusty’s during the spring event.
However, you’d be hard-pressed to find another performance like Rusty’s during that final day race. In Rusty’s own words: "You know the [car] is stout when you go from 41st to first, and pass them all and take the lead. I'm used to taking the lead via pit stops and maybe passing one or two, but I've never passed 41 of them. That was a tough one."
Indeed; an RIR tradition of exciting, tough racing on Sunday afternoon we’re excited to see return in 2016 and beyond.
Be there to witness Sunday short-track racing make its historic return to Richmond International Raceway on April 22, 23, and 24th.
Need tickets? Sign up here to be the first to get yours before they go on sale to the public January 15th.