"Screwed from the get-go."
That's a sanitized version of the first line of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," the memoir of Animals lead singer Eric Burdon.
It could go a long way towards describing October 15, 2005, the night the record book says NASCAR held a Sprint Cup Series race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Those of us watching at home could tell that things were going to go south - and I don't mean the good south, the region. I mean downhill. Way downhill - right from the beginning of what should have been NBC's telecast of its "Countdown to Green" pre-race show.
The Peacock was covering some college football game, and the game went over its time limit. Well you know that nobody is going to cut away to show the Second Coming, much less folks setting up the evening's stock car action, when college-by-gosh-football is on. And unlike in 2001, when the start of the race had been moved to TNT to make way for NBC to cover President Bush's remarks on the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan that same day, there was no backup plan. We were stuck watching that football game and hoping it would finally end so we could get some interviews with our stars and some pre-race analysis.
My friends, I found out that night that when you're dealing with a football game, two minutes on their clock can be 20 or 30 in the real world. It looked like it was about over, then one team tied it up. We were headed to overtime. Aw crap.
The game mercifully came to an end, but before they could get us to the race, NBC had to interview what seemed like everyone and his brother about that game. Finally, the network cut to Charlotte just as Elliott Sadler and Ryan Newman were leading the field through the front-stretch dog leg to get the race underway.
The race had been under way just a couple of laps when Robby Gordon blew a tire to draw the caution flag. Immediately we were reminded not only of the previous May's Coca-Cola 600 where the Cup Series set a record with 22 caution flags, but also the night before when the Busch Series competitors - many of them Sprint Cup stars including Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson - managed to wreck a total of 14 times in a 300-mile race. In case you're wondering, that is not a good ratio.
After his own crash in the Busch race, Kevin Harvick was asked what to expect for the NEXTEL Cup race. He turned, pointed at the infield care center, and said "That building right there. They better get a lot more stretchers ready."
NASCAR had a competition caution to check the tires at lap 30 to allow the teams to check their tire wear. The news wasn't all that good, but the race went on.
Then, the world's fastest-ever game of Russian Roulette commenced.
Dale Earnhardt Jr's right front blew on lap 61, sending him slamming into the wall less than 30 laps since restarting from the competition yellow. Nearly 30 laps after the restart from Junior's bout with the wall, Bobby Hamilton Jr's Tide Ride found the concrete thanks to a blown right front. Another 25 laps passed, and Sterling Marlin crashed.
Just 21 laps after Sterling's wreck, race leader Kyle Busch popped a right front. He too slammed the wall. Finally, Harvick's blew after only 18 more laps of green-flag racing, and NASCAR decided something needed to be done. They handed down a mandate of minimum PSI that the teams had to run in their tires, hoping it would allow the right-fronts to last.
Well, it did help the right-front tire situation somewhat, but the wrecking was far from over.
Stewart, who was leading as he had for much of the night despite a pit crew snafu (they didn't realize pit road was open the first time by after Earnhardt's wreck, and so they had to pit a second time and gave up the track position), blew a right-rear tire and backed into the wall on lap 217. The 75-point lead he'd carried into the race? Poof.
David Stremme crashed 28 laps after Stewart. Two laps after the restart from that wreck, Sadler backed his Ford - which had set the track record in qualifying - into the fence. Between them, Stewart and Sadler combined to lead 173 of the first 254 laps. With 80 laps remaining, their hopes were long gone, and it looked like it might be Michael Waltrip's night to finally shine on a track other than Daytona or Talladega. His Chevrolet was hooked up and looked almost unbeatable as he assumed control of the race.
Unfortunately, Waltrip's team hadn't heeded NASCAR's mandate on the tire pressures, and the officials threatened to black flag them if they didn't fix the situation. Once the pressures were brought up to snuff, his car now handled terribly. It was only a matter of time before he crashed, and on lap 279, he did just that after contact with Jamie McMurray. Dale Jarrett was also involved, and all three drivers were done for the night.
Now in command was Kasey Kahne, looking to redeem himself after his gut-wrenching disappointment in the previous year's race. That night, Kahne had led 207 of the first 267 laps with one of the most dominant race cars in recent memory. On the 268th lap, he had crashed due to a blown tire.
It was just about deja vu all over again for Kahne in the 2005 event, as he led 35 circuits only to pop a tire 28 laps from the end. Kahne kept his car out of the fence, but his hopes of a win were dashed.
Joe Nemechek, just as he had in the Coca-Cola 600 before he himself crashed to draw that race's final yellow, assumed the lead with the end of the race in plain sight. Just as in May, however, he lost the lead late, this time on a pass with 10 laps to go in the scheduled distance.
The new leader? Johnson, who had quietly played the role of survivor all night while dealing with battery troubles on his No. 48 Chevrolet.
A wreck by Rusty Wallace brought out the caution flag with three laps left, setting up a two-lap "green-white-checkered" finish. Kurt Busch, now in second, could do nothing with Johnson on the restart, and the Californian pulled away to his fourth-straight Charlotte win and his fifth in his last six races there.
All told, 15 caution flags flew during the 2005 UAW-GM Quality 500, 11 for accidents and four for debris or NASCAR competition yellows. Nearly one-quarter of the race (24.1%) was spent behind pace car driver Brett Bodine. Thankfully Harvick's ominous prediction did not come to fruition: there were no injuries despite all the hard hits. The only multi-car wreck was the Waltrip-McMurray-Jarrett smash-up
Today, memories of that race are best left alone. It was not fun for the drivers riding around waiting for their tires to blow, nor was it fun for the fans sitting at home on the edge of their seat, watching the laps click along, knowing another blown tire was inching closer and hoping it wasn't their driver. It was nothing shy of a disaster, thankfully one of very few of its nature in NASCAR's recent history.