RIVERSIDE — For 27 years the Winston Western 500 has been listed as a road race on the NASCAR schedule, but Sunday it was more than that.
For one memorable 20-mile stretch in mid-race, Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt turned the twisting 2.62-mile course into a short track--banging and leaning on each other as if they were swapping paint on a banked bullring back in the Carolinas.
Both driving Chevrolets, Bodine and Earnhardt switched places seven times at the front of the 42-car field during that short stretch. And when they weren't passing, they were running side by side through tight turns that weren't meant for two cars at a time.
Both cars were predominately yellow, but before they were through, it was difficult to tell which shade of yellow belonged on the sheet metal of which car.
Cruising along behind them, far enough to keep out of trouble, was Rusty Wallace, in the Pontiac of drag racing champion Raymond Beadle.
After Earnhardt ran his car into the ground and its engine expired, and Bodine's tire began to go flat, Wallace cruised home the winner of the most exciting stock car race ever held here.
A crowd announced as 64,500, which Riverside officials said was the largest in the track's history for a stock car race, was on its feet for most of the Bodine-Earnhardt show.
After Earnhardt dropped out, Bodine appeared to have too much horsepower for the rest of the field until a leaking tire sent his car careening off the road into a gigantic mud puddle at Turn 1.
"I must have run over something, that's why I slowed up," Bodine said. "Then I went straight for the mud bog. It might have been a good thing, too, because it might have kept me from hitting the wall."
Bodine, his windshield splattered with mud, had to limp all the way around the track before he could pit for a new tire and a clean windshield.
By that time he was back in 10th.
"Geoff Bodine just handed it to me but I felt I had a good chance to catch him," Wallace said.
Wallace, 31, from Fenton, Mo., finished 1.73 seconds ahead of veteran Benny Parsons, with Kyle Petty and his father, Richard, third and fourth. Two other veterans, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, were fifth and sixth, respectively.
Wallace collected $47,725 for being in the right place at the right time. He also had the best view of the Bodine-Earnhardt duel.
"They both have certain feelings about each other," Wallace said. "They probably feel more strongly about each other than anyone else in the rest of the field.
"Neither one of them gave in. They did a good job and people were standing on their feet cheering them on. That's great, but I'm just glad I wasn't there."
Earnhardt, who makes no secret of his dislike for Bodine, admitted he was in a position to go for broke after having clinched his second straight Winston Cup championship two weeks ago.
"I was just warming up," he said. "It's too bad the car broke. I was really having a lot of fun. That's what you can do when you have the championship wrapped up."
One of his most spectacular fun moments came when he was chasing Bodine up through the esses, a series of switch-backs. When Bodine was setting up to lap Rick McCray, Earnhardt shot across the dirt and came bounding back on the pavement in front of the startled Bodine.
Shortly after that, Bodine passed Earnhardt in the sweeping high-speed Turn 9, but the feisty Earnhardt wouldn't back off. The two cars raced door handle-to-door handle up through the narrow first turn and on up the hill to Turn 6 before Bodine began to pull slowly ahead.
In addition to being treated like a short track, there were other times when the road course action looked more like the Mint 400 off-road race.
Earnhardt's method of making a straight line out of a curve was later copied by Richard Petty and Labonte as they were battling for fourth place.
"I must of hit something out there that Bodine dropped 'cause it wasn't my idea to take that shortcut," Petty said. "First thing I knew, I was headed for the boonies."
Bodine, who started on the pole after qualifying at 117.934 m.p.h., led 92 of the 119 laps, but Wallace led the last 11.
"It's just unbelievable the way this year has gone," Bodine said. "I thought everything had happened that could happen. And now this."
Wallace's win gave him the unofficial road racing championship of NASCAR as he also won at Watkins Glen, N.Y., the only other non-oval track on the schedule.
"I guess I owe a lot to Bob Bondurant," Wallace said. "I went to his school up at Sears Point in 1984 and found out how little I knew about road racing. I guess I was a good student, though.
"When Bodine went out it took a lot of the heat off me, but I was catching him, ever so little. I know he was dominant all day long but the longer we went the stronger our car ran.
"This was a big weekend for Fenton and the folks back in Missouri. Ken Schrader, who won the Southwest Tour 300 on Saturday, is from Fenton, too."
Parsons, who won the Winston Cup championship back in 1973, lost any chance he had to catch Wallace when he found himself in a struggle with Kyle Petty to hold second place.
"After that last yellow caution flag I thought I could catch Rusty," Parsons said. "With 10 laps to go I found Kyle closing in on me and Rusty began to pull away, one foot at a time."
For young Petty, it was his best finish on a road course.
"I figured I had a good shot at Benny, but after chasing him I want to take a look at his birth certificate," Kyle said. "I think he must be about 27 the way he drove."
Kyle is 27. Parsons is 46.