50 Years of nascar racing ~ The Daytona 500: 1994 - 1997 (Post 33)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
When the Winston Cup crews arrived at Daytona for the kickoff event of the 1994 season, one of the track's favorite sons had, tragically, been lost. Davey Allison, who had been part of those memorable finishes of 1988 and 1992, had lost his life in a helicopter accident the previous summer. Ernie Irvan had signed on to drive the Havoline Ford Davey made famous, leaving the Morgan-McClure team that had helped him claim the 1991 Daytona 500. The split had not been an amicable one, and there were hard feelings on both sides. Sterling Marlin had gotten the ride Irvan had left, in the Kodak Chevy. Perhaps fittingly, that year's Daytona 500 would come down to a contest between those two drivers and teams. Early in Speedweeks, it seemed the story to watch was going to be the return of Hoosiers and the resumption of the tire war. Only a few teams had signed on to run Hoosiers, most notably Darrell Waltrip and Geoff Bodine. But it was Loy Allen in a Hoosier shod Ford that stunned everyone by taking the pole position for the race. The expected confrontation between the tire companies never took place. While the Hoosiers were fast for a few laps they did not wear well. In a terrible tragedy, Neil Bonnett was killed while practicing for the 500. While it was not immediately known if it was a tire failure that caused the fatal wreck, Bob Newton, president of Hoosier, announced for safety's sake, they were withdrawing their tires from that event. (It later turned out it was a cut tire, not tire failure that led to the tragedy.) Ernie Irvan seemed to have the car to beat that day, with plenty of Robert Yates horsepower under the hood. Sterling also had a strong car, and he assumed the lead late in the going but Irvan managed to regain the advantage. Unfortunately for Irvan, his last set of tires were not to his liking, and Marlin took the lead for good with 21 laps remaining. For a time, it seemed the two Fords of Irvan and Mark Martin would draft together to get by Marlin, but Mark ran out of gas, for the second time in as many races at Daytona. Sterling Marlin won his first race in 278 starts that day at Daytona. It was also the same track where his father, Coo Coo Marlin, stunned everyone by winning a 125-mile qualifying race as an underdog independent, proving the nut does not fall far from the tree.
Tires once again were a major story at the Daytona 500 of 1995, but the problem was a perceived shortage of Goodyears, leading to dire predictions that by the end of the race there would be no tires left for the final pit stops. NASCAR tried to intervene, to distribute the tires to all the front runners as other competitors fell out, leading to the memorable scene of Dave Marcis sitting atop his tires and refusing to give them up, having promised them to his friends on Dale Earnhardt's team. Sterling Marlin was back, and though he had not won a race since the '94 500, he was considered an early favorite. But Sterling was living in the shadows of the week's big winner, Dale Earnhardt, with everyone saying it was finally going to be Dale's day to win. Earnhardt had already won his qualifying race, the Busch Clash and the IROC race. There was just one trophy left to collect and Dale was on a roll. For numerologists it was also Dale's 17th attempt at the 500, the exact amount of tries it had taken another star-crossed Daytona 500 veteran, Darrell Waltrip, to win his first race. While Earnhardt may have had the pre-race attention, it was Sterling Marlin who emerged from his shadows to dominate the race, leading over half the laps. Running on worn rubber in fifth place, Earnhardt knew he had nothing to offer Marlin, so his team gambled and pitted for fresh rubber during a late caution period, while most of the lead lap cars stayed out. Earnhardt restarted in 14th, but quickly began charging through the field. In the end, his gallant effort came up one position short, and once again Dale was "first loser" the Daytona 500. "This is the Daytona 500 and I don't reckon I'm supposed to win the damn thing." a frustrated Earnhardt told the TV crews. Meanwhile, Marlin was celebrating in Victory Lane, adding his name to a short list of back to back Daytona 500 winners, that had only consisted of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough... pretty good company to keep.
Sterling was back for the 1996 Daytona 500, and followed all his normal pre-race rituals including the fried bologna sandwich for breakfast, in an attempt to be the first driver ever to win three consecutive Daytona 500s. Unfortunately, Marlin also fried an engine and wound up 40th. Once again Earnhardt looked like the man to beat. He won the pole for the race, the IROC race, and his seventh straight 125 qualifier race. It seems Lady Luck only takes a dislike to Dale for the 500 itself. Dale Jarrett was back with Robert Yates, driving a team car to Ernie Irvan's, a move that surprised many people, as Jarrett had only won one race with the 28 bunch. He was out to prove Yates' confidence in him was well founded. As it turned out, it was. In the closing laps of the race it came down to the Dale and Dale show, just as it had in 1993. Ken Schrader and Mark Martin were the jokers in the pack. With the draft as important as it is at Daytona, whichever Dale they chose to partner with would have a clear advantage. Mark was in a Ford and Schrader in a Chevy so it seemed obvious which of the twosome they each would choose. It didn't happen like that. Earnhardt ducked low on Jarrett several times but Schrader would not join him. Kenny was trying to hook up with Mark to get around Earnhardt and perhaps take a shot at Jarrett. Just as they had in 1993, Jarrett and Earnhardt raced hard to the checkered flag, but once again Jarrett took the victory, and a clearly annoyed Earnhardt had to settle for yet another second place, while crossing Ken Schrader off his Christmas card list.
Most of you will recall last year's 500, and the exciting finish. While the early stages of the race were run without any of those fearsome chain reaction wrecks that often mar restrictor plate races, in the end it was a crash that decided it. Jeff Gordon seemed out of contention after having to pit for an equalized tire that almost had him a lap down, and running by himself while the lead draft closed in on him. A timely caution let Jeff stay on the lead lap. Long time fans of the sport were thrilled to see two favorites, Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt, leading the pack, and seemingly trying to open a little distance so they could decide the race amongst themselves. Behind them the two Robert Yates cars, Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett were working together to close in on Jeff Gordon who was positioned third. But behind the Yates cars, streaming to the aid of their Hendrick teammate, Gordon, were Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven. It looked to be a strategist's race at that point. The complexion of the race changed in the blink of an eye. Earnhardt skated up the track a little and Gordon dove low for the pass. Earnhardt brushed the wall, came back and tagged Gordon. While Gordon was able to drive on, Ernie Irvan got into the back of Earnhardt, setting off a wreck that saw Earnhardt's car roll violently, and also collected Jarrett. While in the ambulance Earnhardt noted, somewhat surprised, his thoroughly battered race car still had four wheels under it, heading in approximately the right direction. He climbed out of the ambulance and asked the tow truck operator to try starting the car. When the engine thundered to life, Dale hopped back in his car and drove it back to the pits, where after some brutal sheetmetal surgery, a bunch of bungee cords, and a mile of duct tape were employed, the team got the car patched up enough to finish the race, to the thunderous applause of the crowd. No, Dale doesn't have any Daytona 500 wins, but he sure has a lot of heart.
Imagine poor Bill Elliott looking in the rearview mirror heading to the restart and not only seeing three bow ties and no blue ovals, but three teammates to boot, carefully coordinating their strategy via two way radio . Shortly after racing resumed, Gordon dove low to try to get around Elliott. Elliott moved low to block him, and Jeff moved still lower. Long time fans were expecting a replay of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough's wreck at the '79 500, but Bill moved up just enough to allow Gordon enough room for the pass, rather than having them both wrecked out of the event. That minor lift out of the throttle allowed the other two Hendrick cars to pass Elliott as well. Whether Bill could have battled back to win became a moot point, when a violent 11-car wreck caused the race to end under caution. The three Hendrick teammates, Gordon, Labonte and Craven, finished 1-2-3, in that order, a Daytona 500 first. Gordon also became the third different Team Hendrick driver to win the Daytona 500, a feat only the Wood Brothers had managed previously.
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