By Zack Albert | NASCAR.com
"That's what we've been wanting is being able to draft up and race these guys. I think the things they've done and changes they've made will make a difference. I think you'll see a better race, a closer race." -- Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR teleconference, Oct. 11, 2000.
Bobby Labonte was steaming toward his first premier series championship, heading into Talladega with a commanding 252-point lead -- more than any driver could earn in one race under the former Latford points system -- over Jeff Burton. Dale Earnhardt ranked third, 258 points off the top with Dale Jarrett further back in fourth, 388 points in arrears.
Dunlap: I think he saw those upcoming races as a real chance for him to make a run. ... Earnhardt was so focused on getting that eighth championship and, I think, at that moment that late in the season he had kind of felt it slipping away.
Bobby Labonte: At the time where we were in points, it was risk over reward and if you were the chaser, it was easier to make those risks. If you're being chased, this is one of those places where you bide your time and you wait toward the end of it more.
Dale Jarrett (driver, Robert Yates Racing No. 88 Ford): It was such an unknown. I won't say that I dreaded the race because I looked forward to racing there. We had been very successful at Talladega, but with the unknown and being in the midst of a championship battle was something that we were a little bit leery of in making the right choices and the right calls, so, as always, you're on edge racing at Talladega.
In addition to the ratcheted-up championship pressure, teams and drivers also faced polarizing new aerodynamics rules that altered the looks of the cars and the type of racing they produced.
McReynolds: The aero package was interesting. NASCAR had been searching all throughout the early part of 2000. ... In the summer of that year they took about 10 or 12 of us down to Daytona to do a test, and it was really an open sheet of paper. We went down there and they told us to bring all types of spoiler material and aluminum. I don't know that they really knew what they wanted to try and we just started trying things.
Helton: We'd kind of eased up to it, but back in those days, we would kind of settle in on what we would use at the Daytona 500 by the Talladega race and use it there so that everybody would get used to it or we'd find any hidden ghosts and goblins in it before we unveiled it at the Daytona 500.
Bobby Labonte: I think we were there for the test and it was like some people liked it and some people didn't. If I went from 18th to first on the last lap, I loved it. I didn't like it quite as good at the end of the day.
Childress: As good as I can remember back, we had the package with the wicker on the spoiler and the wicker across the roof. It was a whole new package and the cars really drafted, really raced.
Nemechek: We called that the old taxi cab strip and they put a lot of drag in the car and turbulated a lot of air. … Once the air hit that thing on the roof, there were some very unique things going on with that, and I think between our two teams we were able to understand that quicker than most.
Kenny Wallace (driver, Andy Petree Racing No. 55 Chevrolet): Andy Petree was by far, in my opinion, the best at getting the most out of his race cars on the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He was the king of aerodynamics and getting the car low to the ground.
Petree: I loved it. In my opinion, it was one of the best packages that we ever had for restrictor-plate racing because it kept the cars obviously in a big pack, but it made a big, huge hole in the air and it took a lot more power to push that aero package, so the car had more power, more response and I thought it was one of the best packages they ever had.
Bobby Labonte: Back then, we didn't run a pack of 43 cars in a full pack like you do today. I don't think we circled it as much as these guys do, say in the last five or 10 years, but it was somewhere you knew that just whatever happened, you could be running in the top five one lap and then 18th the next lap.
Hailey: There was a tremendous amount of unknown with the new wicker bill across the top of the car. We had no idea what we were in for.
A new aero package had drivers and crew chiefs wondering how their respective cars would react in traffic. This No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo had no problem adjusting. The vehicle that carried Dale Earnhardt to his final NASCAR victory still resides in the team museum.
Though the aerodynamic devices were intended to slow and bunch up the cars, the speeds shown in early practices were deemed too fast. That led to NASCAR officials making a change to the size of the restrictor-plate openings -- from 1 inch to 15/16ths -- just before final practice in an effort to further slow the cars. The modification added an extra layer of intrigue to what was already shaping up to be a true wild-card race.
Petree: They had a restrictor-plate size, if I recall correctly, it was a one-inch plate that we started with, which made quite a bit of power. So we sat on the pole with the 33 car (Nemechek) and that one-inch plate changed everything as far as restrictor-plate motors.
Helton: I don't think it would be called unprecedented, but it wasn't something we did every superspeedway race, but we also watched very closely the top speeds, and so if I recall correctly, it seems to me like this package during practice produced some speeds that had crept up and the aero package around the car was still such that the lift-off speed was critical to us. We shrunk the plate in the middle of that event to get the speeds in a better position for the event.
Skinner: The aero platform, the whole rules thing with the engine package that they brought, for some reason everything was perfect on our car that weekend and we were extremely fast. And then NASCAR decided to put a smaller plate on, and I went up into the NASCAR truck and raised hell. It didn't take Mike Helton long to come out of his chair and explain to me that NASCAR had been there long before I was and it will be there long after I'm not. His job is to make sure that we don't put cars in the grandstands and keep our fans safe, and he basically just shut me right up and they did what they wanted to do anyway.
Hailey: At that time, I was actually the dyno operator in the shop, so it was my job to run the engines on the dyno. We did a lot of testing before each race because we always had the idea, 'They may go a little smaller restrictor plate or they may go a little larger.' So we had a little background. We knew kind of what to do if they changed restrictor plates as far as the engine, as far as the tuning and everything, so it wasn't a big surprise that we had to change it. We were ready.
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"I begged those Talladega guys to let me drive one of the monster trucks. I mean, there aren't a lot of things left that I haven't driven, but a monster truck was one of them. They already had someone lined up, but I just kept bugging them. Finally, they gave in." -- Tony Stewart, Talladega Superspeedway news release, Oct. 10, 2000.
As part of what was touted as "White Knuckle Weekend," the track arranged for a monster truck exhibition on the backstretch, with figures from the NASCAR garage taking the wheel on the eve of Sunday's main event. One of those was Kevin Hamlin, Earnhardt's crew chief.
Hamlin: They were having a monster truck race with Bigfoot, and that whole series. We went over there the night before and practiced. It was Tony Stewart, myself, Jimmy Spencer and I think it was Elliott Sadler.
Then Tony and I, we were kind of getting into it a bit. After Elliott and Jimmy left, we actually went over there and Tony convinced them that we needed to do a practice run because he didn't want to make a fool of himself the next night in front of all the people there. So, we went over there to do that, and the guy that was teaching me how to do it goes, 'All right, we're not even going to run over the cars fast or nothing. We're not going to jump, all you're going to worry about is the starting line here.' He's like, 'As soon as the first yellow light comes on, just hit the gas and go over the first little pile they had there.'
Tony, he wanted to go first. He probably went halfway fast and I just did what my guy told me to. Then Tony, he kept jacking with me, like, 'Oh, I'm going to kick your ass.' We were parked right next to one another in the garage, so all day long, Tony kept jacking with me and telling me he was going to kick my ass, and then Earnhardt was like, 'What's that all about?' I told him we're racing monster trucks tonight and he's like, 'Oh, no, no, no. You're not racing no monster truck. You'll get hurt.' I said, 'The guy said you can't get hurt, even if you roll over.'
Danny Lawrence (engine builder, Richard Childress Racing): Of course Earnhardt was like, 'I don't care what you do, don't let him beat you.'
Hailey: He sat in that monster truck and he was not gonna lose. He's a competitor just like the rest of us.
Hamlin: So Danny Lawrence and I went over there and all the regular truck guys were running. When we got there, I was like, 'Holy s---. Maybe we shouldn't do this.' Those guys were flying through the air, high up in the air. I'm like, man, I don't know if I want anything to do with this now. He goes, 'C'mon, man. You've got to do it. Everybody in the garage is here. It's all I've been talking about all day.' I'm like, 'Yeah, OK, great.'
So it comes time to do it, and I climb up in the truck. I'm sitting there, just going, 'Ugh, this is a bad idea,' because usually every time I do something crazy like that, I do end up getting hurt. Like one of our off Fridays at Charlotte, I went out on the four-wheeler and broke my arm. So that's why Earnhardt said I shouldn't be doing that stuff.
I was thinking maybe we shouldn't even do this. So I look over there at Tony, and Tony flips me the bird. And I was like, 'OK, m-----------, it's game on now.' I was ready to go after that. I pulled up there and I left him sitting on the starting line. Well, when I got ready to jump and fly over the cars, I was like, 'Uh oh, this ain't going to be good,' because I was going way faster than what I thought I should be going. Anyway, I hit the cars and go flying up in the air.
Hailey: When they said go with the monster truck, he pushed the pedal to the floorboard and no matter what was gonna happen, he was gonna hold on to that truck. He cleared the truck much more than he should have and landed flat.
Hamlin: Well, when I came down, it came down on the front tires and then slapped the back tires and that's when I thought I was paralyzed. I beat Tony and won the race, but then -- whew -- I was hurting.
Lawrence: The guy driving this truck was a really, really short guy and the seatbelts actually came over his shoulder. So (Hamlin) took off in the truck racing Tony and they went up in the air. When he hit, those seatbelts compressed his spine.
Hamlin: Went to the emergency room and did all that, and then I was on some pretty good painkillers the whole next day. I mean, I couldn't even move. That morning, I just sat there in the lounge in a daze. They told me, 'Your back's broke.' I asked so how were we going to fix it, and he said, 'Oh, I can't do anything for you. You're going to have to go to the doctor when you get home.' He's like, 'You want some painkillers?' and I went, 'Naw, I'm good.' He says, 'OK, you can leave then,' so I went to stand up and then that was impossible, so I went, 'OK, get the nurse back in here. I want the strongest thing you got.' They gave me a shot, but I still wasn't really able to walk really good then.
They brought a chair out of the lounge for me to sit on because I wasn't able to sit on the pit box. I was fairly lucky because when I got home, I went to see Dr. Branch there in Winston-Salem, and he said I was very, very close to being paralyzed. You're pretty lucky. Whatever bit of pain I still get every once in a while, I consider myself pretty lucky for not being paralyzed. That makes the pain a lot easier to handle.
Hutchens: I think he was told a couple centimeters either way I think he would have been in trouble as far as being paralyzed.
Lawrence: We went to the hospital that night, and he was pale and sideways. That's why he had coveralls on in the video. His pants were too tight, and he was hurting bad. They had him on Advil, this and that and whatever.
Hutchens: He could barely walk much less move around. As luck would have it he was pretty lucky, I guess, to escape with the injuries that he had and he probably really wasn't in any shape to actually be at the race track.
Hailey: We kind of babied him around and doctored him the best we could and kind of took care of him. He was one of us, so we took him out on pit road and helped him get through the day. Again, it's part of being a team. We kind of look after each other.
Lawrence: His back is actually still messed up today from that, but he did actually beat Tony Stewart, though.
CONTINUED: READ PART 3 HERE