DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- They call him Swervin' Irvan. The nickname doesn't bother him a lick.
"It beats Bonehead, which they gave me one time," Ernie Irvan quipped late yesterday afternoon.
Irvan swerved his Chevrolet Lumina inside and around Dale Earnhardt with fewer than six laps remaining, and for the erstwhile "Bonehead," it proved to be the brightest move of the 33rd Daytona 500.
That gave the 32-year-old transplanted Californian a rear-view-mirror peek as the last of nine spins and crashes smashed the cars of his toughest remaining rivals, Earnhardt, Davey Allison and Kyle Petty, on the 197th lap.
Earnhardt lost control and spun his Chevrolet up into Allison's Ford Thunderbird as they raced door-handle-to-door-handle four car lengths behind Irvan. Petty battered Earnhardt's skidding car.
Irvan said he just "told myself, 'Don't let off the throttle or somebody will blow on by you.' "
But there was nobody left to challenge. Irvan --ed his Chevrolet back to the start-finish line and a yellow flag that was still waving three laps later, when the checkered also unfurled to signal Irvan's second NASCAR Winston Cup victory and his first Daytona 500 triumph.
His last fright came as the 31-degree banking and the poky caution-period pace caused his fuel to slosh over to the left side of the tank and his engine to sputter through much of that final lap.
"I said: 'This can't be true. This can't happen to me,' " he said.
Had the engine died, Sterling Marlin would have inherited victory. But the race, the glory and a $233,000 prize belonged to Irvan. And, he said, "I don't think the late crash takes anything away from the win."
The disastrous tag from Earnhardt had Allison bristling. "I ain't happy," he said. "I had a shot to win. I saw a clean pass on the outside, then a hard hit in the left quarter-panel by Earnhardt's sliding car put me in the outside wall. That's all I've got to say."
Earnhardt, who knows crushing disappointment at this track, said simply, "We were going for it."
It's a race the four-time Winston Cup champ has never won. "I'm living for the 1992 Daytona 500," he said.
Others were upset with fate, other drivers or new pit-road regulations initiated for the safety of crewmen.
Drivers were not allowed to change tires during caution periods. That rule was enacted because of a series of pit-road mishaps last year. In the most tragic, Ricky Ruddy spun and struck and killed Mike Rich, a right-side tire changer for Bill Elliott, in the 1990 Winston Cup finale at Atlanta.
Here drivers who formerly would have pitted routinely to take on four fresh tires under caution stayed out on worn tires rather than sacrifice time lost by pitting for a change under green.
"It might have been all right in the pits, but not on the race track," said Richard Petty, who banged the back-straight wall to cause the seventh caution period 16 laps from the wild windup. "All I can say is that a lot of race cars got torn up."
The staggered green-flag stops for tires and fuel by the leaders left little pack racing for the middle two-thirds of a disjointed race. For that period, it wasn't a typical Daytona show for the estimated 145,000 and a CBS-TV audience.
"I know the fans had to be confused," Irvan said, "because I was confused."
But after the final sequence of stops, Darrell Waltrip appeared to have plotted his fuel mileage and saved one trip to the pits. He was five seconds ahead of Earnhardt.
"I think the race was ours to just drive into victory lane, no problem," he said. "Everything went beautiful."
But Richard Petty's crash eliminated fuel as a factor and bunched the nine drivers on the lead lap behind the pace car. That's when the final drama began.
Rusty Wallace, trying to travel 150 miles on one tank, gambled and stayed on the track with the lead. But when the green waved 12 laps from the end, Wallace and Waltrip were easy prey for Earnhardt and Irvan. They were one-two out of the turn four banking, and behind them, another crash developed.
"I'm up on the high side, and Kyle Petty just hangs a right," said Wallace, censoring his thoughts. "I guess he didn't see me. I went into the wall hard." As Wallace skidded sideways down toward the inside, he collected Waltrip hard. Behind them, 1990 Daytona winner Derrike Cope got out of shape, and Hut Stricklin slammed into him from the rear when he slid up into traffic.
"I know Rusty's disappointed, but there's a lot of other disappointed people in this garage. . . . Nobody took anybody out intentionally. Earnhardt didn't take Davey out intentionally."
That was the last act. After the Wallace, Cope and Stricklin scrap metal was cleared, the green waved again with seven laps left.
Irvan bided his time for a lap and then darted inside and cleanly by Earnhardt in turn one. "Our car was just handling better than Dale's," he said. "Dale was having to lift the throttle foot in the corners" to maintain control.
Allison drew alongside Earnhardt to the outside as they completed lap 195, and neither would yield the position. "They were doing the same thing I was -- trying to win," Irvan said.
Two turns into lap 197, he saw back end of Earnhardt's Chevrolet lose traction. "You're not going to see Dale spin by himself too often," Irvan said.
Irvan kept his foot down and when he got back around to the yellow, he told his crew chief on the radio, "Guess what, guys. I think we just won the Daytona 500."