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Rusty earns historic win at Bristol

by Pete Iacobelli

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Rusty Wallace wanted his short-track edge back. He got it Sunday, passing Dale Jarrett with 75 laps to go and won the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Wallace won for the eighth time at Bristol Motor Speedway, a dangerous .533-mile stretch that he's been able to master the past decade. It was Wallace's 50th Winston Cup win and his first since the Food City last April.

"I've been trying for so long to get my 50th win, and to get it at my favorite track," said Wallace, whose first Winston Cup victory was at Bristol on April 6, 1986.

Wallace finished 2.622 seconds ahead of Johnny Benson, whose Pontiac picked its way through the 11 cautions and pounds of twisted metal to go from 33rd to second. Ward Burton, last week's Mall.com 400 winner at Darlington Raceway, was next, placing two Pontiacs in the top three.

Jeremy Mayfield, Wallace's teammate, was fourth, followed by Terry Labonte, the first top five for a Rick Hendrick driver this season.

It helped Wallace that nine-time Bristol winner Dale Earnhardt got caught in a wreck while leading the race, and Jeff Gordon, who led 225 laps, hit a tire leaving the pits and fell from first to 17th.

No one had enough for a recharged Wallace.

The 1989 Winston Cup champion was confident after winning this race last year and thought it would be the start of a banner season. But his Ford Taurus didn't win the rest of the year, confounding Wallace and sending him back to short-track school.

Wallace tested at Bristol and Martinsville, also less than a mile in length, the past two weeks, looking to rediscover the invincibility he used to feel at NASCAR circuits that require as much cunning as power.

Bristol's high sloping curves took their toll with 11 accidents. The most frightening came with 35 laps to go when Rick Mast slammed flush into the driver's side of John Andretti's sliding car. Mast walked to the ambulance holding his midsection. It took several minutes to free Andretti, who also headed to an ambulance under his own power.

Both were checked out and released.

Earnhardt electrified the more than 155,000 fans, charging from 11th to pass Gordon for the lead on lap 206. But two laps later, while racing to the start-finish line under the caution flag, The Intimidator sliced the car of Kenny Irwin, whose wreck caused the stoppage.

Earnhardt spun back into the pits, a tire flying off his car. When he returned to racing, he was 153 laps down and out of the running.

Gordon, the three-time Winston Cup champion whose winless streak grew to 11 races, had one of the strongest cars, leading the most laps of anyone in the 500-lap event. His revamped Rainbow Warriors got him out quickest of the leaders during a caution on lap 386. But Gordon couldn't avoid the tire from Steve Park's pit stall and needed three additional stops to fix things.

"It was my fault, I blasted it pretty good," said Gordon, whose eighth place tied his season's best finish. "We had such a strong car, it's a shame that had to happen.

Park, who smashed Wallace's Bristol qualifying mark Friday, couldn't hold his position and quickly fell back.

Not even Mayfield, who read Wallace's notes from his Bristol testing session and led 124 laps, could hold off Wallace, the 10th driver in NASCAR history with 50 victories.

"We needed to get this one today," Robin Pemberton, Wallace's crew chief, said. "This is one of our favorite race tracks. We wanted this."

Wallace had an average speed of 88.018 mph.

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