NASCAR's top-10 on-track stories of 1999 By Brett Borden
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 31, 1999) You say you want a revolution? Wish granted. The winds of change swept through the NASCAR Winston Cup garage in 1999, altering the balance of power for years to come. There were auspicious beginnings and inauspicious retirements (some expected, some not).
Some forces within the garage area joined together. Others broke apart. The circuit's dominant team still won the most races, but also came unraveled during a year when fate and fortune ganged up on the bully to bring him down.
Here is a look at the top-10 on-track stories of 1999, as well as some others that deserve mention.
1. Over the Rainbow -- One of the most dominant driver/crew chief tandems in the annals of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series became history when Ray Evernham left Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors for greener pa$ture$ (see No. 4). Gordon was still able to rack up seven wins (five with Evernham), but the mystique of the rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevrolet dissolved with each passing finish outside of the top-10. Almost defiantly, Gordon won his first two races out of the gate without Evernham (Brian Whitesell was making the calls), but the only consistency the team seemed to be able to find was in making headlines -- not all of them welcomed. Gordon wins Daytona 500. Evernham leaving Hendrick Motorsports. Rainbow Warriors going to work for Yates. Gordon to team with Robbie Loomis. When it rains, it pours.
2. The Cereal Killer -- In a season filled with big moments, perhaps the biggest came on one of the smallest tracks on the circuit. Hunting buddies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte -- two of only four active drivers with more than one championship -- took turns hunting each other down in the Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. After race leader Labonte was tapped from the rear (and the lead) by another multi-champion, Darrell Waltrip, the driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's Corn Flakes Chevrolet put on four new tires and soon was on Earnhardt like a hawk on a field mouse. He dove in for the kill a little too early, though, as Earnhardt got into the back of him on Turn 2 of the final lap and went on to park the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Earnhardt claimed he didn't know his own strength -- too many Wheaties, perhaps?
3. Grand Open-ing -- Just as the Beatles spearheaded music's "British Invasion," Raybestos Rookie of the Year Tony Stewart led a pack of open-wheel racers into NASCAR in 1999. Like Gordon before him, Stewart came through the Sprint Car ranks in Indiana and even had made it to the top ranks of open-wheel competition. All the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac did for a debut was outdo the established Gordon in the points, winning three races in his freshman campaign in the process. Stewart's development gives car owner Joe Gibbs the equivalent of two Super Bowl contenders under one coach.
4. Dodgeball, anyone? -- The long-awaited return of Dodge to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series became a reality -- and set off a chain reaction in the garage. Evernham left the Hendrick fold to be the first Dodge car owner in the new millennium. And the rumors are flying as to who will be the next to throw his hat (or cowboy hat?) into the ring. Though Dodge won't be competing on the track until 2001, you can bet they will be an active competitor for top talent all of the NASCAR 2000 season.
5. Two Greats Bow Out -- Their paths to retirement couldn't be more different. But Ernie Irvan and Waltrip both made that toughest of all announcements in 1999. Irvan, after a scary accident (at Michigan, again), bowed out immediately, putting closure on a career that had 15 victories, including the Daytona 500 in 1991. "DW," the man who won the Granddaddy of them all two years before Irvan, later announced he would make NASCAR 2000 his final campaign. Their places on the track will be filled, but not their places in the hearts of the fans.
6. The Seven-Year Itch -- In any other year, the breaking of a seven-year stranglehold on the championship by one make might be the No. 1 story. But this was no ordinary year. Nor is Dale Jarrett an ordinary champion. The second second-generation champion in series history brought more than the pride of the Jarrett name with him to New York for the acceptance of the championship trophy. He brought Ford its first title since the late Alan Kulwicki pulled off the feat in 1992. Kulwicki beat out Bill Elliott and the late Davey Allison that year. Allison's car owner was none other than Robert Yates, who choked back tears in the news conference after Jarrett clinched the title at Miami in the second-to-last race of the year.
7. The Great American Race -- It was all that and then some, as the sport's biggest names battled all day long for the checkered flag of the Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace led early and often, but a daring pass by Gordon (only done with the belief Wallace would give him room on the track) gave Gordon the lead. But it was far from over. Earnhardt waited 20 years for his first Daytona 500 victory, and he was determined to go back for seconds the very next year. That's what he got ... second. Gordon used everything he had to hold off the Intimidator. It worked. Gordon's car, replete with a "doughnut" on the side courtesy of Earnhardt, sits proudly in DAYTONA USA through Speedweeks 2000.
8. The Tide Turns -- What a year for Ricky Rudd. First he lost his sponsor. Then he saw his streak (16 straight years on the circuit with at least one victory) come to an end. But in between, his pride was salved by the fact that the veteran would be taking over the steering wheel in a very competitive ride -- the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. It wasn't the first move of the '99 Silly Season, but it was the biggest, and the one that all the others were waiting on.
9. Martin Battles Back -- Perhaps lost in the shuffle of this season's many stories was the continued consistency of one Mark Martin. Battling back problems and other assorted injuries, Martin again showed why he is one of the most respected drivers in the garage. Martin finished third in the standings, his 11th straight finish of sixth or better in the final points.
10. The Virginians -- Second place is never easy to swallow. Especially when your little brother is the guy who finishes in front of you. That was Ward Burton's fate in 1999, as he took runner-up honors three times in his No. 22 Caterpillar Pontiac, while Jeff got away with the prize all three times in his No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford. Mom Burton may not have liked Jeff best, but Mother Nature sure did. Burton won twice in rain-shortened races -- both at Darlington Raceway -- and the second one gave him the Winston No Bull 5 Million-dollar bonus.
Other top stories:
Iron Country -- Earnhardt sweeps Talladega off its feet, winning both races there.
Crashing the Party -- Ward Burton and Mike Skinner finish in the top-10 in points for the first time.
Three for Three -- Earnhardt wins first three True Value IROC races, including last lap duels with Martin, Wallace and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No Longer Taken for Granite -- "Front Row" Joe Nemechek finally finished that way, winning at New Hampshire for his first career series win.