Gordon holds off Earnhardt at finish
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The finish was the one nearly everyone wanted -- The Kid and The Intimidator going bumper-to-bumper. Even Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt wanted it that way at the Daytona 500.
Using the type of daring moves Earnhardt has made so many times, Gordon won NASCAR's premier event on Sunday in a thrilling late-race shootout with the man he called "The Master."
"He's taught me so much out there," Gordon said. "He's probably going to tell you I learned too much from him."
Earnhardt, who finally won his first Daytona 500 last year in his 20th try, did everything he could to catch Gordon on the last trip around the high-banked, 2½-mile oval. His black No. 3 Chevy moved high on the banking and low on the banking but couldn't find an opening.
"Trying to keep him behind me is one of the hardest things I've ever done at Daytona," said Gordon, who also won the Winston Cup season-opener in 1997.
His rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevy passed Earnhardt with one of his breathtaking moves 13 laps from the finish and took the lead with another two laps later.
"I knew if he got out front after that there wasn't anybody who was going to get by him," Gordon said.
His winning move came when he ducked under leader Rusty Wallace heading toward the first turn on lap 190. He then squeezed past the slow-moving lapped car of Ricky Rudd at close to 190 mph, drawing a gasp from the standing crowd of 185,000.
Mike Skinner, Earnhardt's teammate, moved alongside Wallace on the outside and the three cars drove side-by-side into the third turn as the crowd roared.
With Earnhardt bumping him from the back to help him get by, Gordon came out in front at the flagstand, followed by Wallace and Skinner. "I couldn't have done it without his help," Gordon said of Earnhardt.
Earnhardt then made his own charge, as he had done so many times in his 25-year career. He moved to Gordon's rear bumper two laps later, setting up one of the classic finishes in the 41 years of racing at Daytona International Speedway.
"If I could have just got to Gordon in the corner, I might have got under him, but I just couldn't get there," Earnhardt said. "I got beat."
Earnhardt eased off the accelerator driving off turn two on the final lap and took a run at Gordon on the back straightaway. But the seven-time series champion just couldn't catch him.
"I couldn't even get to his bumper," he said. "If I could have, maybe I could have done something with him. But he was strong." The 27-year-old Gordon, the two-time defending Winston Cup champion, had a $2.1 million payday -- the biggest in auto racing history -- as he got to the finish line about two car-lengths ahead of the 47-year-old Earnhardt.
"I had a mirror-full today," said Gordon, who now has 43 career victories. "It's a dream come true for me to race Dale Earnhardt all the way to the finish line in the Daytona 500."
Seconds after the two crossed the finish line, Earnhardt paid tribute to Gordon, banging into the side of his car and giving him a wave.
As for Wallace, he probably lost his chance of winning the race for the first time when his team chose to keep him on the track while most of the other leaders pitted for fresh tires during the final caution period. That yellow flag came out 27 laps from the end after Bobby Hamilton crashed.
"I still think the decision was fine," said Wallace, who led 102 of the 200 laps. "Looking back on it right now, maybe if I would have had a little bit more grip in the tires I might have been able to hold that bottom line a little bit better. But the car still handled good. I wasn't having a problem."
Kenny Irwin, last year's top rookie, finished third, followed by Skinner and Michael Waltrip. Wallace wound up eighth.
The race was run under partly sunny skies and in the mid-50s, which kept the cars cool and running well. The drivers went 94 laps before the first caution flag waved when a car stalled on the track.
After some close early racing, the field stretched out and broke up into groups, with the front-runners pulling away.
Wallace took the top spot for the first time on lap 58 and was able to stay at or near the front until Gordon's late pass.
"Gordon just got me on the apron down there," Wallace said. "I couldn't block him off enough. I thought he was going to drive right in the back of Rudd."
Gordon led only 17 laps, but that included the final 11. He played it safe for most of the race, saving his daring move for when it counted most.
The race was incredibly competitive, with nearly constant battles for position. But with the restrictor plates that slow the cars and keep them bunched, the inevitable multi-car crash came on lap 135 when two-time Daytona winner Dale Jarrett spun in traffic. Thirteen cars were involved, with no injuries reported.
Gordon averaged 161.551 mph. His margin of victory was 0.128 of a second.
Earnhardt started fourth and challenged for the lead in the early going. But, by the first pit stops, he had fallen back with an ill-handling car. A slow pit stop cost him more ground and he found himself nearly a half lap behind at the halfway point.
To make matters worse, he was losing engine power because of an electrical problem. Fortunately, the Winston Cup cars have a backup electrical system and Earnhardt was able to switch over before falling too far off the pace.
Once the cautions began flying, he was able to get close to the leaders again and moved into second on lap 166, trailing Wallace. But Earnhardt never led.
"There were several times I was almost in the grass today," Gordon said. "Those are the longest 12 laps that I have ever run."