By: PattyKay Lilley
I bid you welcome gentle readers, to something many of you tell me you are missing… a visit from our old friend, The Lady in Black. Since the course of Matt’s 50-year History brought us to The Rock yesterday and told us of the beginning, I took this opportunity to dust off another old issue of the Lady that concerns the time when we neared the other end of that spectrum… the end of The Rock as we knew it.
The race that follows was run at Rockingham on November 9, 2003. As noted, it was the last fall race at the Rock, and only one more Cup race would run there, on February 22, 2004. Though not the final race of 2003, (Homestead was yet to be run) this was the race that saw Matt Kenseth assured of being the last winner of the Winston Cup. It was a strange time, with rules changing, Bill France Jr. retiring and Winston leaving, but little did we know what the following year held in store…
As you might recall, the “Lucky Dog Rule” had been instituted only a short time before, first appearing at Dover on September 21, 2003. This occurred as a result of NASCAR deciding to abandon “racing back to the caution flag” after Dale Jarrett played a dangerous game of “Deer in the headlights” while straddling the start/finish line at Loudon the previous week. A wrecked and stalled Jarrett sat helplessly as a full field of cars came screaming at him, full speed ahead. After some 55 years, that custom ended that day, and in its place we were given the Lucky Dog. The Lady rose immediately to the challenge and has her own term for the rule. Here then, without further ado, compliments of the time travel machine is The Lady in Black. Please enjoy!
Good day race fans. This is your raving reporter, the Lady in Black, coming to you from frosty North Carolina Speedway, aka the Rock. The kids from Winston Cup gathered here on Sunday for the last autumn festivities to be held at this location. Sayonara Rockingham, you’ve been replaced by a second race in the Tinsel Town area.
That little black cloud that follows us from week to week had its way with morning practice on Saturday, but things cleared up in time for Happy Hour and for Jiminy McCricket to dominate his third Busch race in a row at this track. Sunday dawned clear but dang cold. (They wonder why there is a problem filling the seats here. Get a clue, it’s called “November”)
Five Black Hawk helicopters ushered in the beginning of trackside ceremonies and a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner was offered in traditional barbershop harmony by members of the U. S. Army 82nd Airborne Chorus. That awesome presentation was followed by a flyover from the 333rd Fighter Squadron from Johnson Air Force Base. The Winston Victory Lap this week was done by active driver Bobby Labonte and 1973 Winston Cup Champion Benny Parsons in a replica of L.G. DeWitt’s #72, the car he drove to the Championship. The other two stooges tried to convince Benny to race the car but there was food in the booth and he knew it.
When they dropped the green rag, it was Friday Ryan on the pole, (again) with the Vicar on his outside flank. Give the advantage to the rolling phone booth. By lap 17, Jeremy Mayfail caught up to Flyin’ Ryan, but the blue Dodge got very wide and he couldn’t get around him. Behind them, the new Zewo Hewo was coming on fast and at lap 47, he passed the New Man for the lead. On the next lap we saw Kreatin’ Havoc hit the bar for an early Bud. More of the kids thought that looked like a swell idea and over the next several laps the bar got busy.
On lap 77, we saw Can’t Cope take a lazy loop into the inside wall and retire to the lounge for repairs. That of course, brought out the first of ten cautions on the day. For those who have difficulty following what occurs when there is a caution during green flag bar stops, it means that all of the kids who stopped early are rewarded for their efforts by being placed a lap down to the leader. By not going back to the bar, they are then allowed to start in front of the leader and are considered to be on the “tail end of the lead lap.” That’s as clear as mud, right? Just accept it, because they are not about to change it. Just for the record, the One LAP UP (One Lucky Arse PUP) was Kenny Wall-Ace.
Of the gang that grabbed a cold one on the caution, Jeremy Mayfail left the bar first, just ahead of the Zewo Hewo, yet they were about eighth and ninth on the track, not counting the kids in the loser line on the bottom. Sometimes that can get messy and this time it did. After only a couple of circles, we saw the New Man bounce off the wall and into the car with the flames. Flameboy thought he’d been attacked and hit back. Not to be outdone, Flyin’ Ryan body-slammed him again and Jeffy retaliated with a vicious lick to the left quarter panel, sending the phone booth spinning down the track. That of course, was yellow rag #2, and NASCAR seemed to take a dim view of the whole thing, placing one of the boys in the red shirts in front of the Rainbow car for a full lap. I guess they figured that the spin was punishment enough for Flyin’ Ryan. There were a few laps gotten back the hard way up front and the One LAP UP went to Groggy Biffle. When the bar stools emptied, it was Mayfield in the lead, followed by Jiminy McCricket, the Zewo Hewo, Long Tall Mikey and Bobby Lobotomy.
When they say that cautions breed cautions, they just aren’t whistling Dixie. No sooner had they gotten back to making circles than Dale Swear-it drove his Big Brown Truck up into Casey Smear who in turn smeared the wall with the Busch League kid. (Anyone care to guess who I had on my fantasy card?) Behind that mess, we saw Stewpot get into the back of Mighty Matt, the point leader, but Matt saved the car and they went merrily on their way, with huge apologies offered to the #17 crew chief. All that occurred on lap 94 and even though they’d all just had a beer, sixteen of the boys rolled back to the bar for more. The One LAP UP was awarded to the Vicar that time.
Lap 101 and here we go again! When the green flew, Cow Patty didn’t answer the call and they stacked up behind him. Jeffy Bootin’ was sent into a lazy loop by contact with his old friend Rubby Gordon and the fourth yellow of the afternoon flew. Believe it or not, there were several more who came to the bar on that one and the One LAP UP was Johnny Beenslow. The lineup at the restart read Mayfail, Wawd, Long Tall Mikey, Bobby Lobotomy and the Awesome One.
Lap 108 brought us another restart and (oh, you guessed it) another caution, when Groggy Biffle put his Grainger into the spin cycle unassisted. Sniffles would be fine, but behind him, the domino effect saw Jiminy McCricket turned from behind, to slide down the track. He barely touched Biffle, but he touched the inside wall hard enough to retire the car with the star to the lounge for a new radiator. That would entail some 18 laps and a few rounds of Miller Time. The bar stayed closed for quite a while as they mopped up the contents of McCricket’s radiator, but all the leaders stayed out anyway. One can only hold so much beer, after all. The One LAP UP on caution #5 was Kreatin’ Havoc.
Finally, they managed to restart and keep all the cars in a straight line for a while. Well, all but the Kodak Moment, which blew an engine around lap 135. That produced some interesting scenes behind pit wall as several teams sent emissaries to bid on his tires. It seems that Goodyear is still using up its inventory of old rubber and it was rumored that there might not be enough tires left to go around. (Pun intended) I have no idea if it’s true, but I heard that Larry McClure made more from that auction than Kodak puts into the car at any given race.
At lap 155, the man in the house on stilts went back to work for the sixth time when Cow Patty executed a perfect pirouette in an effort to avoid hitting Steve Parked. He didn’t hit a thing, but it provided a perfect excuse for the gang to hit the bar and use up some more of those old tires. It also gave the Candy Man a One LAP UP award. When they restarted on lap 161, it was Mayfail in the lead, followed by Jeffy’s Mini-me, the Awesome One, the Zewo Hewo and Long Tall Mikey. There were now thirty cars on the lead lap and somewhere in there, we bade a fond farewell to Can’t Cope, who put a lock on last place.
Within ten laps we had a battle for the lead between Mayfail and Mini-me and shortly after that we watched the Big Brown Truck slow on the track with a smoking left front tire. That turned out to be a bad wheel bearing and he retired to the lounge for a few cold ones while the pit bulls installed a new one. At lap 175, Mini-me took the lead from Mayfail and the Awesome One followed him through. Wild Biyull grabbed the lead for his red Dodge on lap 186. By lap 200 the front of the field was the Awesome One followed by Mayfail, Jeffy’s Mini-me, Long Tall Mikey, Bobby Lobotomy, Zewo Hewo, Sterling Silver, Flyin’ Ryan and Jeffy Bootin’.
At lap 234, the Big Brown Truck rejoined the gang, some 52 laps down to the leaders. At lap 237, another round of green flag pit stops began. Now remember what I told you. What is the last thing anyone wants to see during green flag beer breaks? Of course, it’s a caution; so of course, there was one, at lap 242. It came when Mark the Munchkin blew an engine in a plume of smoke just as Mighty Matt the point leader was heading into the bar. He pulled a hard right turn and went back onto the track but NASCAR has a little line that you’re not supposed to cross if you don’t mean to get a beer. For that transgression, he was sent to the end of the longest line. Now, since a lot of the kids had already gotten their Coors and old rubber, they stayed out when the leaders pitted and we were faced with another one of those kooky restarts where the leader starts somewhere in the middle of the pack. The One LAP UP went to the Rain Man that time, who became only the seventh car on the lead lap. (Not counting the gang that started in front of the leader, on the tail end of the lap)
Remarkably, they made it through the restart without incident this time and when they got it all sorted out around lap 277, it was Mini-me leading the Awesome One, Flyin’ Ryan, Mayfail, Might Matt, Ken Shredder, Rain Man and Bobby Lobotomy. Right after that, we began to hear talk of gas mileage and suppositions of who could make it on only one more stop. Around lap 310, we were watching Mighty Matt rising to the top like the cream in an old milk bottle. From the rear of the field, he overtook Mayfail for fourth spot. Meanwhile, back up front we were watching a spirited battle between Mini-me and the Awesome One for the lead. By lap 320, it was the Awesome One back in front and green flag Bud breaks were starting again.
At lap 329, the eighth yellow of the day came out when the Vicar slid up into Rickety Rudd who in turn made contact with Ricochet Craven, sending both Rudd and Craven hard into the wall. Both drivers would retire to the lounge for the afternoon, no doubt to discuss their misfortunes over a cold Bud. The One LAP UP winner was Bobby Lobotomy. At lap 343, Jaws II began belching smoke from his NAPA parts cart and was black flagged by the man in the stilt house, putting an end to his afternoon.
Circles continued, with the Red Dodge leading the Lowe’s rolling hardware store, until lap 369, when Little Fart slid up into the Home Depot demon, spinning both cars and bringing out yellow rag #9. Somewhere in the smoke, Crusty Rusty called for a change of underwear after narrowly missing both spinning cars. The One LAP UP went to Jeffy Bootin’ that time and Miller Time was enjoyed by all, but especially by the New Man. He came out of the bar third originally but went back for another beer and left side tires. (Sometimes old rubber is lumpy)
Unfortunately, that set up the tenth and final caution of the day, when Flyin’ Ryan attempted to pass Mongo at the rear of the field and got up into Ken Shredder who was living the high life in the high lane. The contact sent Shredder BAM into the concrete and ended what had up ‘til then been a great run. Some cats just can’t catch a break! A few of the kids caught a quick beer on the break including Sterling Silver and the New Man. The One LAP UP went to Stewpot and the race restarted with only eleven laps to go. With six to go, we saw a wise Mighty Matt let Mayfail steam by for third place, while assuring himself of finishing ahead of the seventh place he needed to clinch the Championship.
At the checkers it was the Awesome One over Jeffy’s Mini-me, Mayfail, Mighty Matt and the New Man. Matt’s fourth place finish clinched the first Winston Cup Championship for the Cat in the Hat since he entered the series in 1988. We watched as Matt tore up a bunch of the landscaping, and then we were treated to interviews with Jack, Munchkin Mark (The listed owner of the #17) and Matt’s father, Roy. We watched as Matt took a victory lap accompanied by a trailer load of DeWalt crewmembers and then we were off to Victory Lane for an interview with Robby Reiser, the crew chief for the #17 team. Finally, Matt emerged from the car to claim the Winston Cup, which had been placed on top of his car. It was the last Winston Cup ever to be won. Matt got in all the obligatory sponsor plugs and remembered to thank just about everyone in the world for getting him there. It was a scene of victory and conviviality all around. All hail the conquering hero!
Now race fans, if you feel there was something missing at the end of the afternoon, you’d be right. Shuffled off to a far corner of Victory Lane was the Awesome One, the pride of Dawsonville, Georgia, who had just won the race. I know it happens every year but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Remember, it was the last running of this autumn race at the Rock and very possibly almost the last run for Awesome Bill as well. Color me cynical, but shouldn’t he have been allowed to turn some doughnuts of his own in celebration of a dominating win? Matt will be Champion for a whole year, but Bill had only Sunday.
Congratulations, Awesome Bill! You ran a great race and you won. It doesn’t get any better than that, unless you’re the Champion.
Congratulations also to Mighty Matt! We know that you’ll be a wonderful representative of our sport over the next year.
Good-bye Rockingham, we’ll see you in the spring.
Many thanks, R.J. Reynolds. You’ve been a wonderful sponsor for over 30 years. It won’t be the same without you!
That’s exactly the way it was at the Rock on Sunday. Would I lie to you?
And we did see Rockingham again in the spring, when it hosted the second race of the 2004 season on February 22. It was the last Cup race at The Rock, as it was removed from the NASCAR schedule in favor of a second race at the place where we were told that all the fans were downstairs shopping… Fontana, now known as Auto Club Speedway. That second race has since been lost to make room on the schedule for the admission of the traffic jam that is Kentucky Motor Speedway… yet another cookie-cutter. So much more could have been accomplished by simply giving Rockingham a date or two when it wasn’t snowing or threatening to do so.
In closing, I simply cannot let the opportunity pass to offer warm and sincere thanks to Andy Hillenburg, whose untiring efforts and undoubted investment of at least a small fortune, have given new life to the old track. Over the intervening years, along with operating his own driving school, Andy has attracted racing from series such as the Rev-Oil Pro Cup Series, ARCA Racing Series, NASCAR K & N Pro Series East, and last April, the return of a premiere NASCAR series when The Rock hosted the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series… to a full grandstand. The trucks will return to The Rock on April 14, 2013. Let’s fill those grandstands another time race fans. In these days of empty seats and grandstands being removed, a full house has to send a message!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!
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