For the second year in a row, NASCAR's day of celebration ended in tragedy.
Mike Rich, a crew member of the Bill Elliott team, was killed in a pit road accident in the late stages of the Atlanta Journal 500 Sunday. On a day when the race tour annually crowns its champion, it instead mourned the loss of one of its own.In the record books, Sunday will go down as the day Dale Earnhardt won his fourth points championship and Morgan Shepherd his third career race. But it will long be remembered as another dark day in NASCAR's history.
Late in the race, the car Ricky Rudd was driving slid out of control and into Elliott's car on pit road, where Rich was changing the right rear tire. He was struck by Rudd's automobile and crushed between the two cars. It was the second year in a row that tragedy struck on the final day of the season, putting a damper on the sport's day of celebration. Veteran driver Grant Adcox was killed in the Journal 500 last year.
Shepherd came from 20th starting position to win the Journal 500, ending a long winless streak that wore him down and caused some to speculate that he would never win again. It was his first win since 1986 and the third of his spotted racing career that started in 1970.
Somewhat appropriately, Shepherd's victory, as his career has been, was overshadowed. Earnhardt capped what NASCAR's Dick Beaty called the ``greatest season in the history of NASCAR,' Sunday by completing a tremendous comeback and winning the Winston Cup championship. Mark Martin, who led the race most of the year, finished 26 points behind.
Shepherd drove a splendid race in one of the strangest events of the year. On a day where there were races going on for all kinds of money and titles, Shepherd survived.
``It was a race that we had to kind of roll along with,' he said. ``A lot went on out there, and a lot of people were racing for a lot of money. We just wanted to drive our race. We got through it. There were tears in my eyes on that last lap, and it was hard to see, but I just kept going.'
Among the matters settled Sunday were the Manufacturer's Championship, several positions in the final Winston Cup standings, Winner's Circle money and more than one team's very future.
Chevrolet won its eighth straight manufacturer's title in a tiebreaker based on victories. Both Ford and Chevy ended the year with 194 points. Chevy teams won 13 races to Ford's 11, and that was the difference.
Geoff Bodine finished second in the race and overtook hard-luck Elliott for third in the final standings. It boosted his season-ending money more than $65,000.
Kyle Petty blew an engine on the 12th lap, finished last and fell from eighth to 11th in the point standings. It cost him thousands in Winston Cup money and untold thousands in the Winner's Circle money, which is added to the top drivers' purses the following season.
Several drivers ended the race with no idea what they will do next season. Alan Kulwicki is without a sponsor. Bobby Hillin and Rick Wilson are without a job.
But the biggest loser Sunday was Martin, whose team struggled down the stretch to finish second to Earnhardt in the point standings he led for most of the season. Martin finished sixth, three positions behind Earnhardt Sunday, and lost more than three-quarters of a $1 million in season-ending money. But it was more than that. The loss relegated the team to a second-place status in a season that they deserved better.
Martin's run Sunday reflected his season. His was as strong as any car on the track at times, but strange circumstances kept him from running up front. When it was all over, a bad tire even cost him fifth place in the race.
``I'm disappointed for the team,' Martin said. ``We worked hard this year, and I'm very proud and very happy. The only way I could be happier is if we had won. But we didn't. We finished second to the best, and we can take pride in that. We'll be back next year.'
In fact, Martin and his team, the hardest-working on the tour, stayed in Atlanta so they could test today.
``Whatever your watches say right now, it's 1991 for us,' Martin said. ``1990 is over.'
Martin was one of several cars that could not challenge Shepherd and Elliott Sunday. The two were the class of the field, running far ahead of the pack on several occasions and turning the race into a two-car race. It had been billed a two-car race anyway, but the expected battle between Martin and Elliott was anticlimactic. Earnhardt drove as fast as he had to. Martin had to scramble, overcoming fuel problems that stalled his car twice, and an ignition problem that cut off late in the race.
Shepherd and Elliott, meanwhile, took turns dominating along with Darrell Waltrip, who ended up fifth. Elliott appeared to have the strongest car, but the pit road accident cost him the race. Elliott was sitting in the pits during a late caution when the car of Ricky Rudd came barreling down pit road. Rudd locked up his brakes, and the car slid around and into Elliott's car. Rudd's car pinned Rich between the automobiles and sent another crew member, tire-man Tommy Cole, rolling into the next pit stall.
Cole was being treated in a local hospital Sunday night for arm injuries.
``The accident was terribly unfortunate,' Rudd said. ``I don't know if I got in some oil or what, but the brakes locked.'
Elliott was not a factor after that. His car smoked badly when it returned to the track, and NASCAR forced him to come into the pits, effectively stopping to score him with 14 laps to go. Elliott finished 15th.
Dale Jarrett was a surprising fourth, just behind Earnhardt at the finish. Rounding out the top 10 were Waltrip, Martin, Ernie Irvan, Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace and Greg Sacks.