In NASCAR's Winston Cup series, the Super Bowl is the first game of the season, and on Sunday, Washington Redskin coach Joe Gibbs won it with a quarterback who wore the blue star of the Dallas Cowboys on his helmet. In beating a team that calls itself the Raiders, Gibbs spoke not a word into his headset, allowing his quarterback to make all the crucial calls.
NASCAR's Super Bowl is the Daytona 500, and the Chevrolet owned by Gibbs and driven by unheralded Dale Jarrett won the race by two car lengths over a Raider-black Chevy steered by Dale Earnhardt for a "Just win, baby" owner named Richard Childress. Finally blossoming at age 36, Jarrett drove to victory with some last-minute moves he had never exhibited before.
Though the 500 is as venerable an event as the NFL's big show—and eight years older, to boot—when Gibbs formed his racing team in July 1991 it was seen as a significant celebrity boost for stock car racing. As for Jarrett, the driver whom Gibbs selected for his car, well, there were experts who thought that Gibbs had had better drafts. Jarrett, in three full seasons on the circuit, had never won a Winston Cup race, though two months after Gibbs hired him he won one for the team he was leaving. The Gibbs team won no races in '92 and had only two top-five finishes.
When Jarrett qualified for this year's 500, in the front row beside pole sitter Kyle Petty, it seemed no more than a pleasant aberration, a small reward for Gibbs after the Redskins were knocked out in Round 2 of the recent NFL playoffs. The expectation was that the 500 would be a duel between Petty and Earnhardt. Petty's father, the legendary King Richard, who won this race seven times, retired at the end of last season. Though Kyle insisted that being finally liberated from his father's shadow had nothing to do with how free and easy he was running in practice, Richard opined that "it might."
Earnhardt roared through the week's preliminary races, winning the Busch Clash on Feb. 7; one of the twin 125-mile qualifying races on Feb. 11; and the Goody's 300 the day before the 500. He would have been the overwhelming favorite on Sunday morning, except that he has a history of being snakebit in the 500. The man whom many consider to be the most talented stock car driver ever has won virtually every race that NASCAR has to offer except its Super Bowl. Earnhardt, a five-time Winston Cup champion, is winless in 15 Daytona 500 starts.
On Sunday young Petty was the first of the prerace favorites to suffer heartbreak. On Lap 157 of the 200-lap chase around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, he was caught up in a crash that began with a bit of fender-banging between Earnhardt and 1992 Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. Earnhardt continued unscathed after he and Unser came together, nudging Unser's Chevrolet into Bobby Hillin Jr.'s Ford, but Petty, trying to steer through the aftermath, had no room to maneuver. His Pontiac slammed into Hillin's car, which had skidded onto the infield and, when Hillin was unable to stop it, right back onto the track. Petty climbed from the wreckage and immediately engaged Hillin in a nose-to-nose shouting match that teetered on the brink of a shoving match—or worse. Hillin wisely kept his helmet on.
Afterward Petty said, "I asked Hillin why he didn't keep his foot on the brakes. I didn't understand what he said. I told him to shut up, and he kept talking. All I said was shut up."
What Hillin said to Petty was that he had lost his brakes. The crash was "nobody's fault," according to Petty's car owner, Felix Sabates, who figured that at the time of the crash Petty was already steaming over having fallen off the lead because of a bad pit stop. His gas man had stumbled while leaping the pit wall with an 11-gallon can, and as a result, only a partial load of fuel was deposited in Petty's car. That meant Petty had to make an extra pit stop, which dropped him out of the lead pack.
Earnhardt took command through most of the late laps, but he could not overcome his Daytona jinx. In 1990 he had dominated for 499 miles, only to lose with a shredded tire in the third turn of the final lap. On Sunday he fell victim in the final laps to his Chevy's tendency to oversteer. On the next-to-last lap Jarrett pulled up behind Earnhardt while entering Turn 3. The draft effect from Jarrett's car "got me looser," Earnhardt said. As they roared past the white flag signaling the final lap, Jarrett drove up beside Earnhardt on the inside and then used his car's horsepower advantage to pull ahead entering Turn 1. He motored away to a .19-second victory worth $238,200.
"When you beat Dale Earnhardt anywhere, anytime, you've had a day's work," said Jarrett afterward. "He's done everything but win this race."
Said Earnhardt in an ironic singsong, "I didn't win again." Then he threw up his hands and smiled. "What the heck."
While Earnhardt was bemoaning yet another last-second loss, Gibbs was enjoying his trip to the winner's circle. "This is a Super Bowl, and the feeling is exactly the same," said Gibbs. "The only difference is, I didn't have nearly as much to do with this win. My job when this team plays is to stay out of the way and pray."
While Gibbs had not spoken a word to Jarrett through his headset, Jarrett's father, Ned, a two-time Winston Cup champion, had tried his best to coach his son from his vantage point as a CBS color commentator. Ned unabashedly cheered Dale on while calling the race's final laps. "I thought for a moment he could hear what I was saying," said Ned. "I said, 'Get up under Earnhardt and get him loose!' and that's exactly what he did."
Seven caution flags—one brought out by Rusty Wallace's horrific crash on Lap 168—slowed Jarrett's winning average speed to 154.972 mph. The bodywork on Wallace's Pontiac disintegrated as it tumbled down the backstretch, but the roll cage remained intact, and the driver walked away from the wreck.
"I'm thankful Rusty's O.K.," said Dale Jarrett, a religious man who had warmed quickly to the equally devout Gibbs when the two met, in 1991. Gibbs, admittedly a novice at evaluating driving talent, had interviewed several other drivers, including two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott. But Gibbs had a hunch about Jarrett. "I didn't consider it a gamble," Gibbs said, "because I felt that he was on the verge of doing something big."