DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kenny Irwin couldn't even see the leader of the Daytona 500 when the green flag dropped starting the race. But it was different story when the race was over.
Irwin started 41st in the 43-car field and finished a career-high third. In the best outing of his short Winston Cup career, Irwin drove a steady, aggressive race and if not for a feather brush with the left rear bumper of Dale Jarrett's car, could have been considered perfect.
"It was an awesome day for me," said Irwin, who was Rookie of the Year last season. "But I feel so bad about what happened to Dale, if it was my fault."
It was Turn 3 of Lap 136. Jarrett, Irwin's teammate in the Robert Yates stable, had been running with two other cars, three abreast in front of Irwin. Jeff Gordon had just passed Jarrett and he was in the middle of two lanes of traffic.
"I tried to get back to let him in line," Irwin said. "I don't know if we touched. I really don't know if we touched or if the air just got taken off his car. But I feel very, very bad about it, if it was my fault."
Jarrett, who led for 14 laps early in the race, wasn't throwing blame around, but did say he was hit.
"I got tagged," he said. "They [other cars] got a run on me coming out of Turn 2. I was just trying to go into three and somebody hit me in the left rear. It all started from there."
The accident was also bad news for Mike Skinner, who had found a drafting partner in Jarrett.
"I lost my partner in that wreck," said Skinner, who finished fourth and had one of the strongest cars out there. "Dale was probably the best partner I had. But Kenny did a good job. He came up there and raced us clean. He got by me, and I just wasn't able to get by him.
"And on that last lap, I think he would have helped Dale [Earnhardt] pass Gordon if he could. I think Kenny was trying to get [his car] to victory lane, like I was. Like we all were."
Emptiness in victory lane
The only disappointing moment for Gordon came in victory lane, when he arrived there without his car owner Rick Hendrick, who returned to the track last week after a two-year absence due to leukemia and a year under house arrest on a mail fraud conviction.
"Rick is home in Charlotte," said Gordon. "I talked to him on the phone and he said he had tears in his eyes, he wanted to be here so much."
John Hendrick said his brother overdid it here last week and was forced to return home Friday night when he came down with a virus.
"He had hoped to fly back [yesterday] morning," said John. "But he called at 7: 30 a.m. and said he was just too sick to make it."
Who are these guys?
There is nothing unusual about Gordon and Earnhardt showing up in the top five. But what about Irwin, Skinner and Michael Waltrip (fifth)?
All of last season, Irwin had one top-five finish, Waltrip none. Skinner had the most with four.
"It's a great feeling, but it was disappointing, too," Waltrip said. "I felt like I had a really strong horse. I let the 28 [Irwin] get up under me and it cost us a chance to win. But we needed this good start, that's for sure. We did."
Thirty-two and counting
Dave Marcis, who is 0-for-32 in the Daytona 500, finished a respectable 16th and might have done better had he not got caught speeding on pit road.
"I was going 3,900 rpm but the speed limit was 3,600 [55 mph]," Marcis said. "I just screwed up. I put too much tape on the grille this morning. I was running too hot when the race started. I got out of the pack, cooled the car off and tried not to burn up the motor."
He said he'll keep at it until he gets it right.
"We're proud of our record at Daytona," said Marcis, who tied Richard Petty for most Daytona 500 starts yesterday. "If I'm living, I'll be here next year."
Running into trouble
Jimmy Spencer was among the leaders when he felt he ran over something. He decided against pitting, blew a tire and hit the Turn 2 wall on Lap 121.
"I just know the tire started vibrating. I thought I could finish, you know being hard-headed, but it wouldn't and it blew out and hit the wall pretty hard," he said.
Tony Stewart (28th) was the highest finishing rookie. In 12 of the last 13 500s, Earnhardt has finished in the top 10, including one win and four seconds. Petty had 40 career victories at age 28. Gordon, 28, now has 43. Yesterday's win was Gordon's third straight, counting his victories at Rockingham and Atlanta at the end of last season. Quote of the day: "We weren't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but they knew we were here." -- Darrell Waltrip, who started last and finished 21st.
Pub Date: 2/15/99