NASCAR Then and Now: Gordon Wins First Night Race at Daytona
Prior to 1998, the Daytona International Speedway was one of the few super speedways on the NASCAR circuit that lacked a permanent lighting system.
After all, who thought about racing at night around the "The World Center of Racing"? It was home to two of the most exciting events of the year with the season-opening Daytona 500 in February and the mid-summer classic in the Firecracker 400.
In no way did it need to be like rival tracks in Concord, N.C., Bristol, Tenn., or other small tracks across the country. Not a chance.
Well, the powers that be at International Speedway Corporation, who own a majority of the venues on the NASCAR schedule, wondered "what the night could do," as Steve Winwood once sang in 1988.
Over the winter of 1997-1998, the diligent staff of Daytona installed MUSCO lighting systems all around the track, completing the ambitious project in anticipation of the Pepsi 400 scheduled for Saturday, July 4th.
Fans, competitors, and the media were left in awe at the beautiful sights of the newly-lit 2.5-mile superspeedway. "This place is so lit up, it almost looks like a day race in these cars", which then TNN Motorsports personality Dr. Dick Berggren said during the race broadcast.
The late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. piloted his No. 3 Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet for a few circuits around the track in front of a relatively tremendous crowd who were essentially watching a media-driven test session.
With Earnhardt, Sr. giving the thumbs up, fans counted down to the race date of Independence Day. All the ingredients for a perfect race were there:
- It was NASCAR's 50th Anniversary, with huge merchandising gimmicks and media tributes for fans to immerse themselves in.
- "The Man In Black" had won—finally—the Daytona 500 earlier in the year, thus making him the odds-on favorite for the Pepsi 400.
- And oh yea, it was going to be held on July 4th, America's birthday. Who needed fireworks when you got the sparks flying off of 43 cars?
Unfortunately, not so much for the race, but for residents of central and southern Florida, there was a bigger concern to worry about.
The summer of '98 wasn't exactly kind to Floridians, with the wildfires threatening homeowners as well as the countless animal sanctuaries around the region.
Families fled from their homes, wondering if they would return back to a place that was in-tact or destroyed in the fire's wake.
Volusia County was declared a disaster area by the federal government—significant because it is the home to Daytona International Speedway.
The track, sponsors, and the sport reached a decision, and a right one at that, to postpone the Pepsi 400 to the Cup Series' open weekend date of Saturday, Oct. 17th.
With the wildfire threat eventually eliminated within a month, the NASCAR circuit pressed on, with records breaking, cheating accusations a plenty, new stars emerging, and a championship race that was basically won in the heat of the summer months.
The Winston Cup championship chase came down to a two man show between Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. In essence, it was the classic battle pitting Chevrolet versus Ford, Hendrick Motorsports against Roush Racing—sounds exciting, right?
Gordon essentially stunk up fans' hopes for a close points race for the title, assuming the points lead with his fourth win of the year on the newly-configured Sears Point Raceway—a lead he would never relinquish despite the strong efforts of Martin and Dale Jarrett.
By the time the tour hit up the high banks of Daytona for an October classic, the complexion of the sport was starting to change.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was tabbed to drive in five races in the Cup ranks, Darrell Waltrip was essentially racing into the twilight of his career, a new event at Homestead-Miami Speedway was announced, and some guy named Gordon was en-route to his third championship in his sixth season.
Still, with races at Phoenix, Rockingham, and Atlanta to be run, a mistake on Gordon's end would essentially breathe a bit of life into the title hunt.
Are you kidding? Coming off a runner-up finish in the Winston 500 at the hands of victor Jarrett, Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Chevy team licked its chomps to win their sponsor's showcase.
Racing conservatively for the early going, "The Rainbow Warrior" hovered around the top five for the first half of the race as contenders Rusty Wallace, Jarrett, Earnhardt, and Bobby Labonte led the field.
Earnhardt would be eliminated from contention when he drove his No. 3 Chevy into a stray tire on pit road, damaging the front valence of his car and his hopes for a win.
Jarrett would contend until the near bitter end of the race, when his No. 88 Quality Care Ford Taurus cut down a tire which sent him from the lead lap to the lap behind pack.
With Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, and Mike Skinner left to play "prevent defense" against "The Wonderboy," their hopes to deny the 27-year-old from Victory Lane were unsuccessful.
Gordon led for 49 circuits, on laps 88-90, 100-107, and most importantly, the final 37 trips around DIS. Taking the lead from Kenny Irwin, Jr. on lap 123, the only thing standing in the No. 24's way was Mother Nature.
Even the brief rain showers could not deter the road to victory for the points leader, as Gordon held off Labonte, Skinner, Mayfield, and Wallace to the stripe for his 11th victory of 1998.
The win, which increased Gordon's point lead over Martin from 288 to 358, essentially ended any hopes for challengers Martin and Jarrett to dethrone "The Kid."
It was also the No. 24 team's 17th straight top-five finish, which played a pivotal role into the substantial points lead held for the remainder of the season.
Eleven years later, there have been some dramatic finishes and stories from this 400-miler, now known as the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.
From Jarrett's fuel mileage win in 1999 to Kyle Busch's thriller last year, the action of this July classic is unlike any other race in the dog days of summer.
So fans, what's been your favorite night-time running of the 400?
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