RACING TO THE TOP WITH INDY IN THE PITS, NASCAR SHIFTED INTO OVERDRIVE AT THE DAYTONA 500

February 26, 1996

At heart the Daytona 500 and the preliminary races of Speedweek
at Daytona International Speedway are still, as a local Baptist
preacher used to call them, "a redneck's high holy days." Even
while NASCAR's audience has grown vastly broader, the event has
remained a simple brawl among American drivers in their big
American-made cars, a drastic contrast to the imported
personalities and high-tech machinery and blind-speed esoterica
of the Indianapolis 500. So although the 38th running of the
Daytona 500 on Sunday was no more or less a slugfest than usual,
it was the landmark punch in the impending knockout of Indy as
the nation's most-esteemed motor sports event.

"Certainly, because of what is going on in Indy Car racing, the
Daytona 500 is now the race," said Dale Jarrett after winning
Sunday's race by .12 of a second over Dale Earnhardt. As biased
as Jarrett might be, his assessment was on the mark. With the
moguls of Indy Car racing locked in a silly civil war over
long-term control of the circuit, this year's Indianapolis 500
stands to be a pathetic display of racing because of a planned
boycott by top teams and star drivers.

Meanwhile, the Daytona 500 thunders on as a monolith of
Americana. There has never been so much as a hiccup in the
race's history, not one strike or boycott or even a rainout.
(Old-timers used to say that Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder
and the first czar in the family dictatorship that has kept
Daytona on the straight and narrow, also controlled the Florida
weather on race weekends.)

Even Daytona's one long-running inequity continues
uninterrupted: Earnhardt, the best stock car driver around
today, has now failed to win the race in 18 tries. Since 1979 he
has been a perennial contender, not to mention the clear
favorite heading into the 500 in each of the last seven years.
He has won 28 less-important races at Daytona, more than any
other driver. In fact, Earnhardt won two races there last week,
the 100-mile International Race of Champions last Friday and a
125-mile qualifying race for the 500 last Thursday. So neither
the place nor the competition is the cause of his undoing. It's
fate.

Earnhardt has now lost three of the last four Daytona 500s by a
total of .89 of a second--to Jarrett in 1993 by .16, to Sterling
Marlin in '95 by .61 and to Jarrett again on Sunday. From '90,
when he dominated the 500 for 499 miles only to run over some
debris that cut a tire in the waning seconds, to this year, when
he tucked in behind Jarrett and turned him every which way but
loose in the final laps, Earnhardt has gone home to Mooresville,
N.C., stunned and heartbroken.

The latest loss may have been the most frustrating for
Earnhardt, who repeatedly swung his ominous black Chevrolet
Monte Carlo to the inside and outside of Jarrett's Ford
Thunderbird in a futile attempt to take over the lead. Earnhardt
matched his magnificent late-race efforts of a year ago, when he
futilely tried to run down Marlin's clearly superior car. A
seven-time NASCAR champion, with a total of 68 Winston Cup wins
to his credit, Earnhardt has become somewhat resigned to his
Daytona fate but is not yet rid of his disgust over coming up
short in horsepower.

"Well, that's the Daytona 500," he said while still parked in
his car in the garage area after Sunday's race. "Finished second
again. No problem." But when he was pressed for details as he
climbed out, Earnhardt snarled, "We couldn't do nothin'! The
damn Fords were too strong! Could you not see that? Jarrett
pulled us [Earnhardt, Ken Schrader and Mark Martin, the three
cars in immediate pursuit at the end] by himself. We couldn't
draft up to him." Then Earnhardt stomped off, ordering security
guards to slam a chain-link gate between him and pursuing
minicams.

Earlier in the week Earnhardt had said that he intended to "pass
at the 499-mile mark rather than get passed at 499." In other
words, he planned to make his move entering the third turn on
the last lap of the race. With 10 laps to go on Sunday, he
showed signs of following through with his Ruthian called shot.
Running second, Earnhardt slipped alongside Jarrett and appeared
to have the power to pass him. Then Earnhardt pulled his punch,
seemingly saving it for the 499th mile. "That's exactly what I
thought--Earnhardt was just testing," said two-time Winston Cup
champion Ned Jarrett, who was working Sunday's race as a CBS
analyst and who, incidentally, is Dale Jarrett's father. "I
thought my son was a sitting duck."

"I'd rather look in my mirror and see anything but that
[Earnhardt's] number 3 car," said Dale Jarrett. "But what he
didn't have was a Robert Yates engine. I'm no better than Dale
Earnhardt. But I had a better race car than Dale Earnhardt."

That better race car was custom built in Charlotte under the
supervision of team owner and mechanical maestro Yates, who is
yet another living testimony to the Daytona racing spirit.
Yates's last Daytona 500 win came in 1992, with Davey Allison as
his driver. But 17 months later Allison was killed in a
helicopter crash in the infield of Talladega Superspeedway. To
fill Allison's spot, Yates hired Ernie Irvan, and the new duo
immediately challenged Earnhardt and his car owner, Richard
Childress, for the title of the best team in NASCAR. Then in
August '94, Irvan crashed at Michigan International Speedway and
suffered severe head and lung injuries. Doctors at first gave
him a 10% chance to live. Almost miraculously Irvan recovered,
but he missed more than a year of racing. In the meantime Yates
had to find another driver; he hired Jarrett. Before winning on
Sunday, Jarrett had won only one other race for Yates--the Miller
Genuine Draft 500 in July 1995--and had been widely criticized as
an inadequate replacement for Irvan.

"There were times when I thought I was out of business," Yates
said last week. "A couple of times I wanted to be out of
business, the way things were going for us. I felt I was doing
something wrong. But in this business, if you pay your dues and
suck it up and keep digging, then what goes around comes around.
And it's come around for us."

Last fall, when Irvan returned to racing despite some lasting
impairment in his left eye, Yates expanded to a two-driver team
and kept both Jarrett and Irvan. Continuing his comeback, Irvan
started Sunday's race on the front row next to pole sitter
Earnhardt and even led very early in the race. He appeared to be
the Yates team's best bet for a win--until the 27th of the race's
200 laps, when his chance was lost. Irvan was tucked behind
Earnhardt in the draft when the primary ignition system on
Earnhardt's car failed. In the moment it took Earnhardt to
toggle-switch to his backup electronic system, he slowed, and
Irvan, who was bumped from behind by Wally Dallenbach Jr., hit
the retaining wall heading into Turn 1. Irvan was unhurt, but
his car limped through the remainder of the race to a 35th-place
finish.

Irvan's crash was the second of seven that brought out six
caution flags for the day. The first incident, 10 laps into the
race, ruined the chances of defending Winston Cup champion Jeff
Gordon, NASCAR's 24-year-old prodigy. In another instance in
which cars were running too close together, Gordon was bumped
from behind, ran into the wall and completed just 13 laps. (We
told you it was a brawl.) The Andretti family fell victim to
some of the bad luck it historically encounters at Indy. John
Andretti, who last year switched from Indy Car racing to NASCAR,
led for 23 laps and threatened to match his uncle Mario's
Daytona 500 victory of 1967. But a flawed pit stop just past the
halfway point of the race--the lug nuts on the right rear wheel
weren't tightened enough--required a return to the pits and put
Andretti a lap behind the leaders. Struggling to catch up, he
crashed on Lap 129.

"What makes this win a little more special is knowing that so
many people are coming over to NASCAR Winston Cup racing--that
it's becoming their sport," said Jarrett. "Certainly the
problems other sports are having are helping us become even more
popular around the country. People have got to turn to something
when their football team has moved or their baseball team is on
strike."

Early Sunday morning at the speedway, Richard Petty, NASCAR's
alltime winningest driver, with 200 victories, gazed with a grin
from the privacy of his luxury motor coach. He looked out into a
garage area teeming with VIP guests, many of whom pour
sponsorship money into the sport (the best NASCAR teams now
operate on budgets of $6 million to $7 million a year). "There
are more people right out there, wandering around the garage
area and the infield, than there were in the grandstands 20
years ago," Petty said. There were more than 150,000 packed into
the grandstands on Sunday. In the last four years Winston Cup
season attendance has leaped from 3.7 million to 5.4 million.

Petty pondered the ongoing fight over the Indy 500. Beyond being
your basic struggle for wealth and power between Indianapolis
Motor Speedway president Tony George and the owners of
Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (CART), the rift also
concerns George's desire to return to simpler technology in an
effort to rein in the rising costs of Indy Car racing and CART's
wanting to keep their cars high-tech. The CART owners plan to
stage their own race, the U.S. 500 at Michigan International
Speedway, in direct opposition to the Indy 500 on May 26. The
likelihood is that the Indy field will be gutted and the CART
teams will be adrift without the cornerstone Indy event.

NASCAR has run the Brickyard 400 at Indy in August the past two
years and packed the place each time. "We could carry their big
race [the Indy 500 itself]," said Petty. "If we didn't have a
conflicting date, they could change it to a NASCAR race, and I
don't believe the American public would blink an eye. They
wouldn't be upset at all. In fact they'd probably be more
enthusiastic than they are now, because it would go back to
being an all-American sports spectacular."

"Oh, yes, I do agree," says Charlotte Motor Speedway president
H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, one of the savviest promoters in stock car
racing. "Up there they used to call stock cars 'taxicabs.' But
these taxicabs have come into their own. These cars in this race
just run closer together than they do at Indy."

Indeed, it is brawl versus ballet.

"This," says Wheeler, standing in the Daytona garage, "is pro
football on wheels. They're still playing soccer up at Indy."

COLOR PHOTO: PHIL COALE/AP Jarrett finished a mere .12 of a second ahead of Earnhardt, who is now 0 for 18 at the 500. [Dale Earnhardt's race car trailing Dale Jarrett's at finish line] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Rusty Wallace (2) and Rick Mast went for a spin but then turned around and finished the race. COLOR PHOTO: PETER BAUER/DAYTONA BEACH NEWS-JOURNAL/AP Andretti, who led the race on two separate occasions, went up in smoke with a Turn 2 crash. [John Andretti's race car crashing] COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Daytona was jammed with Jarretts, including winner Dale and his two daughters, Natalee and Karsyn. [Natalee Jarrett, Dale Jarrett, and Karsyn Jarrett]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)