It came down to a final, four-lap, go-for-the-flag dash.
Burton, sitting in the lead, looked in his rearview mirror and knew what he had to do. Behind was Dale Jarrett, the driver of the most powerful Ford on the racetrack. And behind Jarrett was Dale Earnhardt Sr., the big, bad seven-time champion who is in mad pursuit of No. 8.
"I learned my lesson at the Daytona 500," Burton said, when he stepped from his car in Victory Lane. "I remembered the restart near the end of the 500 and how everyone got past Johnny Benson.
"The restart was tough, but I did what I had to do. I was determined to hold off the 88. Every race that's run is won by blocking. But I won this race because I was able to use the experience I've developed in restrictor plate races over the last couple years. I've observed how races are won, and tonight I applied that experience."
The 88 was Jarrett, and when the green flag flew for the restart, Burton took off and then blocked high and low through the final lap. Jarrett never made a move, and Earnhardt, who tried, got shuffled back to eighth.
"I had the fastest car, but that doesn't mean I could just go pass anyone at will," Jarrett said. "I needed help, and the help never came."
This was Burton's second victory of the season, but his first here at Daytona International Speedway. He won by just 0.149 seconds at an average speed of 148.576 mph in his Ford.
Fords took the top five positions, with Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd following Burton home.
Tony Stewart, who looked strong early, finished sixth in the highest-finishing Pontiac, and Earnhardt, who grumped about how uncompetitive the Chevrolets were in this restrictor plate race, had the best-finishing Chevy in eighth.
Despite being shuffled back in the closing laps, Earnhardt still finished four places ahead of Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte and closed the gap between the two to 52 points. Jarrett lurks 29 points behind Earnhardt.
"Jeff had a great restart," said Burton's crew chief, Frank Stoddard. "He didn't let the 88 get a run on him, and it was a super effort. The two-tire pit stop paid off."
By the end of the first 100 laps, Jarrett was showing the dominance that had earned him the pole position for the race and positioned him to take a shot at joining Cale Yarborough as the only winners of three consecutive races at the speedway.
But the only history he wound up making came in the first 40 laps, when he set the record for the most laps led at the start of the 400, bettering Richard Petty's 1984 record of 39.
Jarrett seemed to be taken out of contention during a yellow flag pit stop on lap 105, when his crew had trouble with a lug nut and dropped him to 26th.
But the four tires he took on allowed Jarrett to work his way back toward the front. Once he caught up to Earnhardt, who was running in about the sixth position, the two were able to hook up in a draft that enabled them to work their way up to Burton.
"I was being patient in a hurry," Jarrett said. "Earnhardt and I worked well together, and once we got behind Jeff, I was waiting a little to see if we could get a run on him. But we didn't, and then I got a push from behind and went to second. But I never did get any help from there."
Almost no one had given a thought to Jeff Burton winning this race. He had started ninth, but hadn't been a factor until Stoddard made the call to take two tires when the car pitted on lap 108 and got his car out ahead of everyone else.
Pit stops seemed to play the biggest role in track position for much of the night. Wallace had used a great one to come out in second early in the race, but was penalized for speeding on pit road and dropped to 40th. On the next pit stop, his crew again excelled and got him back up to 13th from where he made his final charge to finish third.
As mentioned, Jarrett lost track position on a bad stop. And Bill Elliott, whose Ford appeared to be the class of the field, had put himself in a solid position to win on lap 128 when he took the time to get four tires and re-emerged in the seventh spot, the first car in the lineup with four fresh tires.
But Elliott's fate awaited him on the racetrack. As he tried to make his move toward the front, Mike Skinner ran into his rear bumper and caused him to wreck going into the third turn on lap 113.
Elliott climbed from his car furious, shaking his fists in the air, as his fine-running Ford sat a smoking heap along side the road. When the field of cars came by, Elliott waited for Skinner and walked toward the track shaking his fist at him.
"It's just frustrating," Elliott said, back in the garage. "This type of racing [restrictor plate] just sets you up for this. With 50 laps to go, what do you expect? There are just too many cars capable of running together."
For Elliott, it was particularly frustrating because while he has been having a respectable, sometimes inspiring, season, he has not won since 1994 and his last victory at Daytona in a Winston Cup points race was in this race in 1991.
NOTES: Terry Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield both were shaken up in a crash last night on lap 83. Mayfield was treated for a bruised right shoulder and released from the infield medical center, and Labonte, after being taken to Halifax Medical Center, was released after a precautionary CT Scan. Stacey Compton was also treated for a bruised left knee and released. ... Benson, whose impressive run in February's Daytona 500 earned him a sponsor, lost his sponsorship just before this race. But, again last night, Benson ran an impressive race. He qualified 20th in his bare white Pontiac, and finished 13th. ... Darrell Waltrip, who finished 27th, led lap 107. In his final season, Waltrip was leading a lap for only the fifth time in the 1990s and the first time at Daytona since 1997. ... Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush spent the day here. He came to the pre-race drivers' meeting, joked about NASCAR scraping the bottom of the barrel to get him, given that his father, former President George Bush, and brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had both been invited before him. He praised the sport for its family values. He pointed out that its participants were true American heroes, having not disappointed their fans like participants in other sports, who have been in trouble with the law with drugs or guns or other abuses. And said he admired the sport because it was "performance-based." A driver and team had to produce, Bush noted, to get paid.(Results, 18E)