Though ganged up on by the rest of the field, Jeff Gordon won
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue
After repeatedly being squeezed, blocked, gang-passed and left
hanging out of the drafting lines over the first 335 miles of
Sunday's Daytona 500, Jeff Gordon calmly radioed to his crew,
"We've got no friends out here."
"Yeah," replied his crew chief, Ray Evernham, "but you knew that."
That Gordon overcame that disadvantage--in a race in which
power-sapping restrictor plates make the drafting off and
pushing of other drivers essential to winning--made his second
Daytona 500 victory in the past three years all the more
satisfying. "I felt about the loneliest out there today that
I've ever felt," said Gordon, who earned $2,172,246 for his
day's work in NASCAR's season-opening and most prestigious
event. "There were times when [packs of drafting cars] were
right behind me, and I thought, Oh, yeah, they're going to give
me that aerodynamic push right on by whoever I was trying to
pass. Then--pheeooo!--they'd just go away. They'd push me enough
to help me get side-by-side with a car, and then they'd make
sure I was left out there by myself. But you know what? I don't
expect any different. [The loneliness felt] almost like an honor."
Most satisfying to Gordon was that he held off the craftiest
efforts of tough old Dale Earnhardt as they came to the
checkered flag. But Gordon's most daring move--arguably the most
brilliant in all 41 runnings of the 500--was his dive onto the
apron at Turn 1, underneath leader Rusty Wallace and almost into
the rear end of a lapped car driven by Ricky Rudd, with 10 laps
Gordon's zigzag past Rudd and Wallace, which came and went
before the naked eye like the jagged path of lightning, would be
called "really foolish" by an exasperated Wallace after the
race. "It could have taken a lot of people out--and killed some
people too," he said. "It's something that can lose you a lot of
respect from your competitors."
Respect? The dissing of Gordon, 27, has been relentless since
Wallace and Earnhardt razzed him terribly for weeping over his
first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in 1994. Sunday's
shunning was simply the continuation of a running NASCAR contest
that has boiled down to two sides: Gordon versus the rest of the
Throughout the race, Gordon, who has won three of the last four
Winston Cup championships, was rebuffed by tag teams and gangs
of tag teams: Wallace and teammate Jeremy Mayfield; Earnhardt
and teammate Mike Skinner; the Yates Racing tandem of Dale
Jarrett and Kenny Irwin; and combinations of the above.
Surprisingly, however, during a caution that began on Lap 175,
Gordon thought he had finally found a friend, the unlikeliest
one of all: Earnhardt. Gordon and Earnhardt were 10th and
eighth, respectively, after pitting for tires and fuel during
the caution while the leading tandem of Wallace and Mayfield
opted not to pit. After a consultation between the Gordon and
Earnhardt crews, Evernham notified Gordon that "Dale wants to
work with you."
"I'll help him all the way up to second place," Gordon replied.
"I'd love to work with him."
When the caution period ended, however, Earnhardt was nowhere to
be found. "They dropped the green flag, and he took off," Gordon
said. "I got stuck back there with some other guys, and I had to
make some moves I wasn't really thrilled about. I was having to
go between cars and make it three wide with me in the middle. I
saw him getting out there, and I didn't want him to get away."
With 15 laps to go, Earnhardt and Gordon finally were bonding,
bumper to bumper in second and third place, respectively, and
drawing a bead on Wallace. But instead of following, Gordon
suddenly drove inside Earnhardt with 12 laps to go and put
himself in position to get an aerodynamic shove past the
Intimidator from, of all people, Earnhardt's teammate, Skinner.
After blowing past Earnhardt, Gordon pulled off the spectacular
maneuver on Wallace that gave him the lead for keeps.
"Rusty did everything he should," said Gordon after the race.
"He ran me down low, but there's a lot of apron there, and I
utilized as much of it as I could. When I got down there and saw
Ricky Rudd running real slow, I said, 'Oh, Ricky, I hope you see
me coming, because I'm coming real fast.' It felt like I was
coming up on him at a thousand miles an hour, and I was getting
ready to hold on tight. I was going to have to get on my brakes
real hard or I don't know what else could have happened."
Said Wallace, "I thought about just holding [Gordon] down on the
apron and driving him right into the back of Rudd's car. I
thought Gordon would maybe get out of the throttle a little bit,
but he wouldn't. He was going. To do it over again, I probably
would have held him down there and waited for the outcome."
Just a split second before Gordon reached Rudd, Wallace moved
over slightly and enabled Gordon to get off the apron. But no
sooner had Gordon edged ahead than here came Skinner on the
other side of Wallace. Again using the teammates against each
other, Gordon stayed ahead of Skinner by virtue of an
aerodynamic push from Earnhardt.
With eight laps left, Earnhardt was still tucked in on Gordon's
rear bumper. In the 500 of 1997, a Gordon-Earnhardt
confrontation in the waning laps had ended with the two bumping
each other while side-by-side and Earnhardt's car eventually
rolling over as Gordon cruised on to win. This time Earnhardt
didn't make it alongside Gordon. "I was looking for some help
from the 31 [Skinner] or the 28 [Irwin], but they got to racing
each other," said Earnhardt. So there was no one to push him
past Gordon. In the final analysis, "I got beat," Earnhardt
In his own peculiar form of congratulation, Earnhardt pulled his
Monte Carlo next to Gordon's after they had crossed the finish
line and bumped the winner. "He drove into the side of me, and
just waved," said Gordon.
Hendrick at Daytona
CAR OWNER ENDS LONG ABSENCE
No one was happier to be in the garage area at Daytona
International Speedway during Speed Weeks than star-crossed team
owner Rick Hendrick, who missed the 1997 season while battling
leukemia and the '98 season while under house arrest for mail
"They say problems build character," says Hendrick. "I ought to
have a lot of character right now. There were days when I
thought I was going to die any minute. I'm not out of the woods
yet, but I'm a long way toward being well."
During his two-year absence from NASCAR, Hendrick, 49, missed
the 1997 Daytona 500, in which Gordon led a one-two-three sweep
by Hendrick Chevrolet Monte Carlos, and a '98 season in which
Gordon won the points championship. Because of his ongoing
battle with leukemia, he also missed Sunday's race, choosing
instead to watch from home in North Carolina.
Goodbye, Sweet Charlotte
FAMED TRACK SELLS ITS IDENTITY
The most commercially saturated sport in the U.S. has begun to
sell off the last piece of its soul. H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler,
president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., last week announced that
his company's Charlotte Motor Speedway, home to two Winston Cup
events, will change its name to Lowe's Motor Speedway as part of
a 10-year, $35 million sponsorship deal with Lowe's
Selling the names of baseball stadiums and basketball arenas is
crass enough, but at least in those sports events aren't labeled
with corporate names and athletes don't wear a dizzying
assortment of commercial logos on their uniforms. More
important, franchise names in those sports continue to identify
cities, states or regions, something that "the Coca-Cola 600 at
Lowe's Motor Speedway" fails to do.
At least for now, some drivers say they won't embrace the
change. "They can name the tracks what they want," says Dale
Jarrett. "To us, it's still winning at Charlotte, Daytona,
Number of times Jeff Gordon has won a $1 million bonus for
meeting qualifying criteria and then finishing first in a
designated race, including Sunday's Daytona 500. The only other
$1 million bonus winners are Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott, with