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Inside Motor Sports
Posted: Tuesday February 16, 1999 03:36 PM
Though ganged up on by the rest of the field, Jeff Gordon won Daytona
By Ed Hinton
"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 remaining.
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 field.
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 admitted.
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.
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 fraud.
"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.
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 home-improvement stores.
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, Talladega."
Issue date: February 22, 1999
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