DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The 100,000 fans who jammed Daytona International Speedway yesterday for the Goody's 300 Grand National stock car race were left gasping as Dale Earnhardt turned in another stunning performance.
With eight laps to go, Earnhardt appeared off the pace, lagging eight car lengths behind the leaders and apparently out of contention.
Five laps later, he was on leader Terry Labonte's bumper, and as the two cars circled the track for the last lap, Earnhardt made his move going into turn three, passing Labonte and staying low enough to block a charging Dale Jarrett to win his fifth consecutive Goody's 300.
"Unbelievable, ain't it?" Earnhardt said after pulling his car into victory lane for the third time this week.
"I've won 23 races here, 23, and ain't one of them been the Daytona 500."
Earnhardt said his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, which averaged 144.135 mph for a half-car-length victory over Jarrett, didn't handle particularly well in the draft.
"We were a little loose with other cars around, and I got a little safe," Earnhardt said.
"At the end, I had Jarrett on my bumper, and I knew he would have gotten under me if I hadn't got under Terry. Terry's an awful good, tough driver, and I was lucky to get down low on him."
Labonte wound up fourth.
Earnhardt has driven 575 competitive miles here in the Busch Clash, the 125-mile qualifier, the IROC race and yesterday's Grand National race. He won all but the Busch Clash.
All that remains is today's Daytona 500. By the time he finishes that, he will have covered a distance comparable to the drive from Daytona Beach to Baltimore.
Pulling for Earnhardt
When the Daytona 500 takes the green flag today, many in the Winston Cup pits will be pulling for Earnhardt if their cars can't win.
Ray Everham, crew chief on the Jeff Gordon car, expressed it best.
"My loyalty would make me say that if we can't win it, I'd pull for one of the other Rick Hendrick cars [Ken Schrader or Labonte]," he said. "But my heart makes me say Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon can win the race, and Terry and Ken can win. But, in my heart, I'd love to see Dale Earnhardt win.
"He's done everything else in racing there is to do, and this place owes him one.
"It would be great if he could win this one for Neil. I hope we race him hard, but this place owes Dale Earnhardt. No one deserves it more than he does."
Added driver John Andretti: "Dale Earnhardt is about as overdue as you can get to win the Daytona 500. If he doesn't win this time, he'll be overdone."
New restart rule
NASCAR's new restart rule will be used in Winston Cup races this season.
With 10 or fewer laps remaining in an event, double-file restarts will be eliminated. All restarts with 10 or fewer laps left will be single file, eliminating lap traffic during the final shootouts.
Richmond International Raceway officials said yesterday that in the interest of safety and competition, the three-quarter-mile track will be opened to Winston Cup teams for open practice Tuesday and Wednesday.
Coach on top
When the Daytona 500 lineup was set, it was Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien's team and driver Chad Little who had the better of it, earning a 17th-place starting spot over former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs' team with Jarrett.
Yesterday, Gibbs' team had the best of it in the Goody's 300. Jarrett finished second, Little third.