As six of stock car racing's top drivers -- jammed together nose to tail -- rumbled toward the last 10 laps of yesterday's 500, Gordon made a final series of stunning moves on a day he filled with daring driving.
First, he out-drove the intimidating Dale Earnhardt to get in position behind leader Bill Elliott with 10 laps to go. Then, with five laps left, he went dangerously low on the front stretch to get past Elliott and collect his first 500 victory.
"This is the big one," said Gordon, 25. "I would have driven down into the infield where they were cooking out to make that final pass."
It was all so dramatic, it almost didn't matter that the race finished under a caution flag. Gordon, who averaged 148.295 mph in his Chevrolet, led teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven across the finish line to give owner Rick Hendrick the first 1-2-3 finish in the sport's modern era, dating to 1971.
"We were all trying to win it for Rick," said Gordon. "I think Terry and Ricky were happy to finish second and third, and I know Rick was high-fiving everyone back home. That was our goal, to put a smile on his face."
In the last couple of months, Hendrick first learned that he has chronic myelogenous leukemia, a form of bone-marrow cancer, and then was indicted on federal charges of money laundering and fraud in connection with his Honda dealerships.
"Jeff, Terry and Ricky gave me a real shot in the arm," said Hendrick from his Charlotte, N.C., home. "It's hard to believe we could have three cars running like that at Daytona. This is the best medicine I could get."
The way Gordon drove yesterday left little doubt about his determination to win or about his ability to drive. Looking more like Earnhardt than Earnhardt, Gordon drove, as drivers like to say, "by the seat of his pants," and put his car anywhere he wanted on the track.
On the second lap, he already was running three-wide, below the paved surface, in his effort to stay near the front. On Lap 112 of the 200-lap race, when he was sure he felt his right rear tire going down, he overruled his crew chief, Ray Evernham, and insisted on a pit stop for a tire change.
Later, after Evernham discovered a slow leak in the tire, the crew chief would say Gordon's call probably prevented the car from spinning out. "It was a gutsy call by the Little Guy," Evernham said.
One of the gutsiest calls Gordon made came with 11 laps left, when he decided to disrupt the six-car train and make his move on Earnhardt, who is now 0-for-19 in the 500.
Elliott was leading, with Earnhardt, Gordon, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett and Labonte on his bumper. Throughout the afternoon, each had experienced the dreadful feeling of falling back in the pack when attempting to make a pass without the help of another car. And so, as the laps were winding down, each seemed content to bide his time until the final few laps.
But coming out of Turn 2, Gordon decided to go for it. He closed up on Earnhardt's bumper, unsettling the air around the seven-time Winston Cup champion's Chevrolet. Gordon then dipped low and started to pass. In a breathtaking moment, Earnhardt was in trouble. His car wiggled, but he kept it high, avoiding the pressing Gordon, and then he hit the outside wall.
Gordon got by, but Irvan rammed Earnhardt from the rear, sending him into a horrifying tumble. Car parts flew everywhere. Irvan's hood went up into the grandstand, hitting two fans, who suffered minor injuries.
On the track, Jarrett's car also hit Earnhardt's tumbling car before Earnhardt came to rest right-side-up on the grass along the backstretch.
"Gordon might have been a little impatient, but he was driving his race," said Earnhardt, after giving Gordon a broad smile and thumbs-up on his way back to the garage. "And we all know in racing things just happen.
"He got up against me tight off Turn 2. My car pushed, and I scuffed the wall a little bit. I got back into him a little. I could have taken him out, too, but I checked off the throttle. Then someone got into me from behind, and the car started going on its top."
Gordon, like everyone else around NASCAR, has seen Earnhardt make the same moves Gordon did yesterday, and Gordon didn't back off in defending his move.
"I was trying to win the Daytona 500," he said. "I think Dale would have done the same thing. I know he was sitting there biding his time, picking the spot where he wanted to make the move on Elliott for the lead. But I wanted to be the one who made the move on Elliott for the lead.
"That's why I made the move. I didn't make it thinking, 'Let's make the move and cause a wreck and get those guys out of the race.' I was very close to losing it all right there, too. If Dale would have hit me, I would have been out of the race."
But "those guys" -- Earnhardt, who would get back in his wrecked car and continue on to finish 31st; Irvan, who wound up 20th; and Jarrett, 23rd -- were out of contention, setting the stage for the driver Earnhardt calls "Wonder Boy."
By the time the race had restarted on Lap 193, Gordon had talked to his teammates and set up the winning pass.
"The plan was not for me to go to the inside and them to go to the outside," he said. "The plan was for them to come with me; they both said they would. Bill knew I was going low, and my idea was to go lower and lower and lower and see how low he wanted to go. I had a ton of momentum, but when I looked in my mirror, my guys weren't there and I saw Bill start creeping back up the track and I said, 'Oh, man, we must be going three wide.' And then I knew I was going to the front."
And then everyone knew Jeff Gordon has more than a little Dale Earnhardt in him.
The top five finishers in yesterday's Daytona 500:
Pos. Driver .. .. .. .. Money
1. Jeff Gordon .. .. .. $377,410
2. Terry Labonte ... .. $194,925
3. Ricky Craven . .. .. $155,625
4. Bill Elliott . .. .. $133,200
5. Sterling Marlin . .. $121,080
Pub Date: 2/17/97