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Swervin' Past An Idol
Sam Moses
February 25, 1991
Ernie Irvan blew by his mentor, Dale Earnhardt, to win the Daytona 500
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February 25, 1991

Swervin' Past An Idol

Ernie Irvan blew by his mentor, Dale Earnhardt, to win the Daytona 500

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Waiting it out, in fact, was the real secret to Irvan's victory. In the aftermath of the death on pit road of tire-changer Mike Rich at last year's final race in Atlanta, NASCAR adopted a number of rules to reduce congestion in the pits, and they clearly succeeded at the 500, the first race at which the regulations were in effect. Unfortunately, the new rules also increased confusion for both fans and competitors and for a long while—about the first 184 laps—upset NASCAR's formula for ensuring close races.

The main provision of the rules stipulates that tires cannot be changed under the yellow flag without a one-lap penalty. In addition to making the pit crews lonely—but safer—this provision spawned individual strategies that spaced out the field. The poor fans couldn't begin to keep track of which leaders were in need of fuel and tires and which weren't. As a result, the standings on the scoreboard were all but useless.

After those 184 yawn-inspiring laps—interrupted by frequent wild spins as drivers who had stayed out of the pits banking on their fuel or tires lasting a few more laps lost their gambles—two people were particularly relieved when Richard Petty hit the wall on the backstraight. They were Allison, who was leading at that point, and Bill France Jr., who runs NASCAR. Allison because the yellow flag would allow him to refuel without losing much distance, France because Petty's crash would bunch the field back up and help ensure an exciting finish.

When the green flag flew again, on Lap 189, 10 cars were nose-to-tail, and any one of them could have won. At the head of the line was the Pontiac of 1989 NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt and Irvan sailed past Wallace cleanly, but Richard Petty's son Kyle chopped him off as he passed, knocking Wallace into the outside wall. That put Wallace smack into Darrell Waltrip's path. Waltrip sent Wallace careening back across the track as cars spun and collided everywhere trying to avoid him.

The drivers completed four laps before the debris from the five cars wrecked because of Kyle Petty's haste could be cleaned up. When the green flag came out for what now figured to be a six-lap, hell-for-leather sprint to the finish, the three who had been fastest at the start—Irvan, Earnhardt and Allison—were right there. And then there was one.

His hound-dog eyes reddened by the champagne that had been squirted into them in Victory Lane, Irvan was asked how he planned to celebrate winning NASCAR's most prestigious event—and $233,000. He thought for a moment, smiled and said, "Well, I was planning to drive home to North Carolina tonight, but I think I might be able to afford a motel now."

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