Monday, February 17, 1997
Racing gods smile on Gordon

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - They came off Turn Two together. Side-by-side. Wheel-to-wheel. Full speed ahead.

Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon would fight for position with their gas pedals pressed to the floor and their Monte Carlos close enough for claustrophobia. This is what they do for a living, and this was the biggest race of their lives. For a chance at the Daytona 500, the sultans of stock car racing will sometimes play chicken.

''I didn't make that move saying, 'Let's have a wreck and get these guys out of the way,' '' Gordon said Sunday afternoon. ''I was trying to win the Daytona 500. I wasn't about to see an opportunity and miss out on it.''

Gordon seized his moment, squeezed his rival, and Earnhardt went into the wall. Ten laps from the finish, the reigning king of stock car racing was usurped by its crown prince. When the wreckage was cleared, it was Gordon who was positioned to pounce on race leader Bill Elliott. Earnhardt's lot was to land the hard luck award. Again.

Los Angeles is not the only city where justice can be capricious. It is also true of the auto racing capital of the Atlantic. While Jeff Gordon became the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 Sunday, Earnhardt was cementing his reputation as the Susan Lucci of his sport.

The Intimidator has dominated the NASCAR circuit like no man since Richard Petty, but he is 0-for-19 in its showcase event. It is as if Nicklaus had never won the Open, or Olivier an Oscar. It is a curiosity that is starting to seem a curse.

''I never saw myself in victory lane for the Daytona 500,'' Gordon said. ''So many big names have not that you never know when it's going to be your day.''

Fate smiled on Jeff Gordon Sunday, and its grin was ear-to-ear. With less than 80 laps to go, Gordon was less than one car length from being lapped by then-leader Mark Martin. Gordon fully expected Martin to make a pass, and doubted he could hold him off, but a caution flag afforded a reprieve. It gave Gordon time to regroup, and enabled him to close much of the gap Martin had created.

Teammates helped

Later, after he had maneuvered through the pack and dispensed with Earnhardt, Gordon had the good fortune to be chasing Elliott in the company of his teammates, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven. The three drivers from Rick Hendrick's racing team conspired to chase Elliott wolfpack-style, and they closed on him approaching Turn Three on Lap 195.

''With three Hendrick cars behind you, you ain't got a chance,'' Elliott said. ''I was dead meat, and I knew it. It was just a matter of when and where.''

Labonte and Craven went high down the straightaway, and Gordon passed Elliott with a daring surge along the track's apron. To take the lead, he would have gone even lower.

''I would have gone to the infield where they were cooking out if that's what it would have taken,'' Gordon said.

A driver does what he must when he can smell champagne. Earnhardt wondered later if Gordon might have acted impatiently, but he would not quibble with his results. Auto racing has its etiquette, but its basic premise is that it's every man for himself.

''When we came off of Turn Two, Gordon was on the inside of me and got up against me tight,'' Earnhardt said. ''My car pushed, and I scuffed the wall a little bit. I got back into him a little and I checked off the throttle. Somebody behind me turned me and when it turned sideways it started going on its top. It stopped, and I got out.''

Earnhardt never quit

Earnhardt is not inclined to bare his soul about his disappointments, but this must have been an agonizing moment. Yet even as he was walking to an ambulance, he looked back and saw that his car's wheels were still intact. Then he climbed back into the car and took off again. He knew he could not win the race, but he decided to press on for the sake of the point standings. He finished 31st, and then drove on in search of Gordon.

''At the end of the race, I see this mangled black No. 3 car drive up,'' Gordon recalled. ''I said, 'Uh-oh, what's he going to say?' But he gave me the thumbs up. I thought that was pretty cool.''