DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With 11 laps to go, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, the two most dominating and perhaps, the two most hated, stock car drivers in the past 15 years, took off down the front straight of the Daytona International Speedway on what looked like a ride into oblivion.
But it wasn't oblivion that awaited them. Gordon's madcap pass would eventually take him into the lead and to victory in the 41st Daytona 500, and Earnhardt, raging on his bumper, would battle him every inch of the way, before finally settling for second just 0.128 second behind.
It was Gordon's second Daytona 500 victory in the past three years and it was set up on that pass when Gordon moved up beside Rusty Wallace, with Earnhardt on his bumper. By the time they reached the intersection where pit road empties onto the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Gordon, Wallace and Mike Skinner, who had come up on the outside, were running three abreast, and turn one loomed before them.
The track was already looking small, when Gordon, the two-time defending Winston Cup champion, looked ahead and saw Ricky Rudd, running slow along the bottom of the track before him. It looked like disaster. But Gordon kept his foot down and Earnhardt kept his car's nose on his bumper.
"There's a point on the race track where the banking on the apron starts to form," said Gordon. "If you're not up on that race track before the banking really starts, and that turn starts to go around, you're going to be in trouble. I saw Ricky and I said, 'Oh, Ricky, I hope you see me coming because I'm coming real fast.' "
Gordon looked like a teen-ager, late at night, trying to make it through an intersection before the caution light turned red.
"I thought he was just gonna drive right in the back of Rudd on the apron there," said Wallace, who led 104 of the 200 laps and was trying to win this race for the first time in 17 tries.
"I had him pinned down there and I said, 'Man, I'm not gonna try to wreck a bunch of cars,' so I pulled up and he got me. I had to back off. It feels horrible to lose the Daytona 500 like that."
It was Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion who finally won his first Daytona 500 last year in his 20th try, who banged away on Gordon's bumper to push him past Wallace. Behind them, Kenny Irwin had pulled into third and Wallace was shuffled back to an eighth-place finish.
The backward motion was a new experience for Wallace, who had benefited from the efforts of his teammate Jeremy Mayfield. Mayfield had shadowed Wallace's every move and blocked for him until Mayfield's car had to make an unscheduled pit stop with less than 15 laps to go.
That backward movement, however, wasn't new to either Gordon or Earnhardt. They had spent most of the afternoon looking for other drivers to draft with them, run nose to tail with them. They found none until they found each other with 22 laps to go.
At that point they worked a deal to help each other to the front. From that point on, the two of them demonstrated what it means to be two of the best stock car drivers on the planet. They proved that even when everyone else is against them that they are still talented enough and brave enough for one of them to win.
"The last 10 laps, it was pretty exciting," said Earnhardt, who had an ignition box problem early in the race. "We were bumping and slamming and bumping and slamming. Off [turn] two we got sideways a couple of times. It was pretty physical. Anyone who could survive that last five or 10 laps, it was pretty awesome just to come home and finish."
The final exhibit of their skill came in the last turn of the last lap. Gordon, watching Earnhardt's every move in his rear-view mirror, saw The Intimidator backing off in turn three, trying to create enough distance between them to make a strong run for a final passing attempt.
Gordon lifted his foot from the accelerator to lessen the gap and finally hit the brakes closing the gap enough to hold him off.
"As far as I'm concerned, especially at Daytona, in restrictor-plate racing, Dale is the best," said Gordon, who led only 17 laps, but the final 11 in becoming the first since Bill Elliott in 1987 to win Daytona from the pole. "He knows how to make passes without getting help. He knows the air. Seeing that black car behind me, that's not exactly what you want to see. He worked me over pretty good. But that's how he is. He was all over my bumper and even a little closer than that sometimes.
"But this is a dream, to outrun Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500! He'll probably tell you he's taught me too much, but I have to thank Dale for making this a tremendous, exciting race."
When they crossed the finish line, with Gordon in front, it looked like Earnhardt pulled alongside to congratulate him.
"Congratulate me?" Gordon said, laughing, about to share a racer's joke. "It may have looked that way to you, but what he did was slam into the side of my car -- then he waved. I couldn't hear him, but I figured he was saying, 'OK, Kid, your car is going in the museum as the winner, but it's going in with a little of my paint on its side.'
"At least that's the way I'm taking it unless he tells me something different next week."
1. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet
2. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet
3. Kenny Irwin, Ford
4. Mike Skinner, Chevrolet
5. Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet
Time of race: 3 hours, 5 minutes, 42 seconds.
Margin of victory: .128 of a second.
Average speed: 161.551 mph.
Pub Date: 2/15/99
From the pole
Jeff Gordon is just the eighth driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole position:
1962 Fireball Roberts
1966 Richard Petty
1968 Cale Yarborough
1980 Buddy Baker
1984 Cale Yarborough
1985 Bill Elliott
1987 Bill Elliott
1999 Jeff Gordon
Pub Date: 2/15/99