The 'Best of' the Daytona 500: 1997 Best Daytona 500s By the Decades: Gordon Becomes Youngest Daytona 500 Winner Ever This is the fifth installment in a six-part series on the best Daytona 500s, divided by decades. Today, as the choice for...
The 'Best of' the Daytona 500: 1997
Best Daytona 500s By the Decades: Gordon Becomes Youngest Daytona 500 Winner Ever
This is the fifth installment in a six-part series on the best Daytona 500s, divided by decades. Today, as the choice for the 1990s, the 1997 race is featured. Next up in the series: The best Daytona 500 of the 2000s.)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 11, 2008) -- The 1997 Daytona 500 catapulted Jeff Gordon from star to mega-superstar.
At that point, Gordon already had a resume a mile long -- one championship, 19 wins, millions of fans (and just as many detractors).
But he didn't have a Daytona 500 win.
That was until he crossed the finish line ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven to become the youngest driver ever to win The Great American Race. Gordon was 25 years, six months and 12 days old.
The race had everything -- a prediction, a duel between bitter rivals and, arguably, a changing of the guard.
First, the prediction. The night before the race, Gordon called his boss Rick Hendrick to tell him he'd bring home a Daytona 500 win. Hendrick was at home battling leukemia. His young driver turned prognosticator.
The rivalry. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt battled up front much of the race, with Gordon passing Earnhardt for second with 10 laps left. The pass put Earnhardt in the wall and sent his car flipping.
The changing of the guard. Gordon staked his claim as the sport's new king, challenging Earnhardt.
Rundown: The 1997 Daytona 500
The Favorites in '97: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett.
The Intangible: Gordon was a youngster -- the field included 27 drivers older than 35 years of age. The Winner's Stats: Jeff Gordon led 40 laps -- third-most in the race behind Mark Martin (52) and Dale Earnhardt (48) -- to win his 20th career race.
The Rundown: Mike Skinner, driving in his rookie NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, won the pole and led the first lap of the race. It was the only lap he led ... Dale Earnhardt, who at that point was a seven-time champion but hadn't won a Daytona 500, took the lead on the second lap and didn't relinquish it until Lap 49. ... Gordon took his first lead on Lap 57 and led until Lap 90. ... The battle between Gordon and Earnhardt reignited with 10 laps to go. Gordon passed Earnhardt for second-place, which led to a stirring accident that left Earnhardt's car mangled. As Gordon passed on the inside, Earnhardt's car bumped Gordon's, hit the wall and was then hit by Dale Jarrett which sent the No. 3 airborne. Earnhardt's car flew over Ernie Irvan and landed in the infield. Earnhardt got out, headed for the ambulance, but realized his car might still be usable. He climbed back in, re-fired the engine and ended the race in 31st place. ... On the restart after the caution, Gordon made a daring pass of Bill Elliott for the lead, ducking low and riding the apron. ... The race ended under caution after a 12-car accident on Lap 197.
Gordon's Take: "I want to be in this sport a long time. So I don't pay much attention to age. I just know it's gonna hurt someday when the young guys start passing me."
The Follow-Up: The Daytona 500 win was just the start of good things to come for Jeff Gordon in the 1997. That year, he would win 10 races and his second of four series championships. Gordon would also win two more Daytona 500s -- in 1997 and 2005 -- in a career that isn't showing signs of slowing. ... Like others before, the 1997 version of the Daytona 500 ended in disappointment for Dale Earnhardt. He came close to victory only to have it slip away. But he wouldn't wait much longer -- the Intimidator finally saw Daytona 500 glory a year later, winning The Great American Race in 1998.