In a Daytona 500 all but out of control by the finish, Ward Burton outran what few survivors remained to score the biggest victory of his career.
With many stout contenders in the junk heap, Burton, a drawling 40-year-old from Virginia, earned his fourth career victory and the first at Daytona for Dodge since the 1977 Firecracker. But an extremely curious chain of events at the finish may have taken the trophy out of one man's hands and put it in another's.
NASCAR, in its stated aim of pleasing all its customers all the time, quickly whipped out a red flag in response to caution on Lap 192, stopping the cars on Lap 194 of the 200 lap race.
The leaders raced to the yellow flag on 192 after several top-10 cars, including that of prior leader Jeff Gordon, stacked up in Turn 2. Sterling Marlin, who had led the most laps (78 of 200), edged Burton at the line. Given the nature of the clean-up, the race might well have ended under caution, with Marlin the winner.
The red, however, ensured a green-flag restart with three laps to go. Marlin had stoved in his right-front fender in contact with Gordon. While stopped behind the pace car on the back stretch, Marlin climbed out of his car to pull the fender away from the tyre but was warned back into his car by
pace car driver Buster Auton, due to the prohibition of working on the cars
Because of that, Marlin was sent to the back of the restart line, as was Gordon, who had pitted for repairs immediately after his spin but before the pits were declared open. Marlin, a two-time winner of this race, said: "If it had finished under caution, I thought we might have it. I've got a lot against stopping the race with five to go. You get a lot of cars torn up."
All that mattered little to Burton, who became the first Virginia driver to win the 500 in its 44 years. Fellow Virginian Elliott Sadler came in second, with Geoff Bodine third, sophomore Kurt Busch fourth and defending race champion Michael Waltrip fifth, despite a spin. A measure of the depleted field was that only 14 cars finished on the lead lap, three of them limping home with post-red flag injuries.
Among those sidelined were Tony Stewart (engine, third lap), Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth (all in the big wreck on Lap 149), Dale Earnhardt Jr (two blown tyres and a broken brake caliper), and Dale Jarrett and Robby Gordon in late-race spins.
The big wreck was caused when Jeff Gordon, running third, made a move inside Kevin Harvick. Harvick moved down to block, driving Gordon below the yellow line, clipped the nose of Gordon's car, sending him spinning up into the path of traffic. The resulting melee resulted in no injuries, although Kenny Wallace's car briefly caught fire.
For full Daytona 500 race results, click here.
Autosport has produced a standalone special magazine to celebrate our 70th birthday. All current print subscribers will receive a copy for free. To order your copy of the 196-page Autosport 70th Anniversary issue, please go to: autosport.com/autosport70th