TALLADEGA, Ala. - As Michael Waltrip sped off the second turn in Saturday's Aaron's 312 for the NASCAR Busch Series, he managed to find a small opening as race cars started to crash into each other.
Just when he thought he was going to escape one of Talladega Superspeedway's customary pileups, the opening closed. From above.
"You don't expect to get hit from the top," Waltrip said. "I figured my hole was going to close up sooner or later, but I never thought it was going to close up from above."
The crash on the 15th lap was that bizarre.
When rookie Shane Hmiel bumped another rookie, Scott Riggs, while they battled for fourth place, it triggered a chain reaction that involved 30 of the 43 cars.
Merely surviving the calamity was worth a top-11 finish as the garage area became a mechanical triage and salvage yard. And handful of cars were fixed enough to make a brief return to the race, but the crash essentially whittled the field of contenders to just three for the final 112 laps.
Jason Keller won the race. He, like Stacy Compton, was ahead of the crash and that allowed him to finish second. Tim Fedewa, who finished in third place, was 200 yards behind and fourth-place Todd Bodine was a lap behind.
It was so wild, Kenny Wallace blew an engine and watched the last 10 laps from pit road. And he still managed a top-10 finish in ninth.
The crash was the biggest in NASCAR history since the 37-car melee in a 300-mile Sportsman Division race at the Daytona International Speedway in 1960.
"Me and the 10 (Riggs) were racing pretty good," Hmiel said. "The 48 (Wallace) moved up (to block) and the 10 lost his nose (traction) and he had to slow up and I got into him. Everybody probably thinks it's my fault. I don't care."
Actually, most drivers shared the blame with all three drivers.
"They blame it on the plate, but I'd just as soon blame it on the drivers since we're the ones who have the control," Waltrip said.
Talladega is one of two raceways that requires the use of a speed-reducing restrictor plate that restricts the flow of air and gas into the engine. By reducing power, speeds are restricted by about 35 mph to keep cars from becoming airborne during a crash.
The problem with restrictor plates is it under-powers the car to the point of not being able to find separation in traffic. Since all the cars race side-by-side and nose-to-tail, one mistake usually winds up involving a multitude of cars.
"Restrictor plates had nothing to do with idiots running into each other," said Ron Hornaday. "You can't blame NASCAR; you can't blame restrictor plates. You blame the drivers who turn the steering wheel."
Although there was more than $3 million in damage, the only injury was to Mike Harmon, who needed two stitches in his tongue.
Keller, who won $62,140, led the final 50 laps.
UNHAPPY HOUR: There were two crashes in the final practice sessions for today's Aaron's 499.
Steve Park cut a tire and hit the wall in the first session, then Mike Wallace also had a flat and spun into Bobby Hamilton's path during the final session.
Wallace and Hamilton are teammates at Andy Petree Racing.
"That's just the way it goes sometimes," Petree said after approving the use of two backup cars for his team. "This sport can really beat you down. It's not a very good day for us, but none of the drivers got hurt; that's the main thing.
"Everybody is OK. We've got the backup cars out. We'll race Sunday. And hopefully it will be safer than the practice session was."
Park also will use a backup car in today's race (2 p.m., FOX-Ch. 54).
PIT STOPS: Among the things confiscated by NASCAR officials was a fuel cell container, rear spoiler and braces on Kyle Petty's car. The sanctioning body also took a fuel cell vent from Casey Atwood's car, a fuel cell neck from Brett Bodine's car, rear window braces from Kevin Harvick's car, an underpan from Jerry Nadeau's car and window braces from Jeff Burton's car ... The Team Auto Racing Circuit (TRAC) on Wednesday will show off the cars that will compete on the stock car circuit next year. The current plan will have 10 teams of three cars each that will represent a city that has a speedway. Standings will be a lot like other stick and ball sports where the city is represented in the standings, not individuals.
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