Gordon Wins Daytona in Exciting Fashion
15 February 1999
Daytona Beach, FL-February 14, 1999-Jeff Gordon claims that he does not have any friends on the racetrack. At the rate that he is winning races it really will not matter. Winning his second Daytona 500 and his 43rd career Winston Cup race, Gordon begins his quest for a fourth Winston Cup title in high style. "That was an exciting race wasn't it?" asked Gordon. "This was a hard-fought victory and I am just happy that my crew [the Rainbow Warriors] helped get me to the top. Ray and the guys deserve the credit for this one." Taking over the lead from Rusty Wallace on lap 190, Gordon held off all of the challenges that Dale Earnhardt, Kenny Irwin, Mike Skinner and Michael Waltrip could muster over the last 10 laps. Gordon, driving a protective line held on to win by .128 seconds.
The heartbreak of the race belonged to Rusty Wallace in the #2 Miller Lite Ford, who was the dominant driver with the dominant car of the race. Wallace led 104 of the 200 laps but found himself caught out on lap 189 when slower traffic caused him to roll out of the throttle. Losing the lead was costly. By the time Wallace re-gained the tail of the 10-car draft he did not have time to respond to the challenge. Fighting his way back to 8th place was of little consolation to the somber Wallace as he fielded questions regarding his loss. "We had a good day, a real good day. Gordon just got me on the apron down there. I just couldn't block him off enough."
Gordon led the 43 car field to the green flag and was passed by Bobby Labonte in the #18 Interstate Batteries Car by lap #2. Labonte, who has come close, led for 14 laps before giving way to Gordon once again on lap 16. Gordon held the lead for 5 more laps before yielding to Mike Skinner in the #31 Lowe's Chevrolet on lap 21. Skinner, who finished fourth, is another driver who had a legitimate chance at winning the 500 but similar to the Pepsi 400 in October could not find a drafting partner, not even his own teammate. Skinner, held the lead for 16 laps and showed the horsepower necessary to win. By lap 37, Bobby Labonte had re-claimed the lead. It certainly appeared that anyone in the top fifteen could win. The lap forty run down of the top ten was T.Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield, Mike Skinner, Ward Burton, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. The caution-free race was moving along at an incredible pace of 187.500 mph average.
On lap 43, Dale Jarrett, took over the lead for the first time. Like the other cars around him, Jarrett also showed early promise to be a contender, unfortunately his day would end early on lap 136. At lap 50, one-quarter distance, the running order was Jarrett, Skinner, Mayfield, Wallace, Gordon, Burton, Martin, Waltrip, Irvan and Earnhardt. The scramble and jockeying for position was a lap by lap occurrence.
On lap 58, after the first round of pitstops was completed, Wallace displayed the horsepower that had been evident in practices leading up to the 500. Taking over the lead, Wallace would hold the lead for the next 64 laps. The on-going fight for position was never-ending. At lap sixty the top ten was Wallace, Jarrett, Skinner, Mayfield, Gordon, Schrader, Martin, Elliott, Hamilton and Tony Stewart who had climbed back into the top ten since the early part of the race.
Retirements from the race were minimal at this point. John Andretti in the #43 car was the earliest retirement on lap 24 with engine problems. The back-up car was not up to the task on this afternoon. Andretti, who had to switch to the back-up car due to the crash in the 125 qualifying race on Thursday, was not confident prior to the race of his chances. "I need to be patient with the car and let the race come to me. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see if that would happen."
The laps rolled by with Wallace seemingly ticking off each mile with the precision of a Swiss Watch. The top ten was trading places so much it seemed that the race should have really been called let's make a deal. On lap 95, Bobby Labonte who had been in or near the top ten rolled down pit lane with ignition problems. Fighting to stay on the lead lap the Interstate Batteries team benefited from a yellow on the very next lap. Unfortunately, Labonte did lose a lap to correct the problem and would not contend for the lead for the rest of the day. The caution was brought out when Kenny Wallace stalled on the track with engine problems. Until that time the average speed for the race was rolling along at a torrid pace of 185.695mph.
None of the leaders pitted. The decision was to stay out and try to take advantage of fuel economy. The field went back to green on lap 100. The running order of the top ten at half-distance Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner, Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin, Chad Little, Kenny Irwin, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Hamilton. The running order was exchanging positions on every lap. The high line on the race track was finally coming in and more cars were taking advantage of a second raceline. The second caution of the day was brought out when Spencer cut a tire hitting the wall in turn #2. Spencer was just starting to move through the pack when the accident occurred.
The leaders all pitted during the caution period for four tires and fuel. A new leader emerged from the pitstops in the form of Bill Elliott. The fans most popular driver was finally back leading a lap at Daytona which had not happened in four years. Elliott led from lap 124-130. Once again, Wallace, who had returned to the race in second place led the charge to the front. Wallace, would lead for 3 laps before giving way to teammate Jeremy Mayfield.
On lap 136 the field of contenders to win the race was cut in half. Kenny Irwin in the #28 car appeared to be pushed into his teammate, Jarrett, by Chad Little in the #97 car. Just who was at fault will be discussed until the next race. What was self-evident was the fact that 12 cars were involved in the massive pile-up. The only car that emerged from the fracas to carry on was Ward Burton in the #22 Caterpillar car. Involved and retired for the day were Jarrett, Bodine, Park, Marlin, Nemechek, Martin, T.Labonte, W.Burton, Bickle, Sadler and Rudd.
During the clean-up, which took 6 laps, the leaders all pitted to change four tires and pick-up more fuel. Coming out of the pits, Skinner took over the lead on the quick pitstop. He was followed by Wallace, Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip. At lap 150 the top ten running order was Skinner, Wallace, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Gordon, Irwin, Irvan, Little, Mayfield and Lepage. Skinner would hold the lead for two more laps before getting freight-trained by 8 cars. Ironically, Skinner's teammate, Earnhardt did not help push Skinner, choosing instead to push first Irwin and then Gordon toward the front.
Wallace appeared to be on his way to winning his first Daytona 500 as the end got closer and closer. The last caution of the day was brought out when Bobby Hamilton cut a tire on the back-stretch on lap 175. Here is where things got interesting. Wallace and crew chief Robin Pemberton chose not to go in for tires. The thinking was that Wallace's tire wear had been excellent all day. It may have been a decision that partly led to Wallace's failure to win. When the green flag flew 12 laps were left in the race. The Daytona 500 had boiled down to a trophy dash. The field bunched together resembled hungry dogs running after red meat. It was truly madness on four wheels. The top three cars (Gordon, Wallace and Earnhardt) ran three-wide in places where two cars side by side was scary enough. Somehow, someway the three cars got through the front stretch but somebody was going to have to give. That person was Wallace. Gordon taking advantage of the quick low line pulled out to a slim lead. Earnhardt was pressing with the others trying to figure out how they could find a hole to the front. It was not to be.
Gordon held off the field to win. The day's work was a healthy payday ($2,172, 246) for Gordon. The amount was enhanced with the winning of the $1 million dollar "NO BULL 5." Gordon also extended his winning streak (Rockingham & Atlanta last year) to three with the victory. It's too early to say that Gordon will win a fourth championship but what a way to start 1999.
David Treffer -- The Auto Channel