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.