Determination, Guts, and Perseverance: The Story of the 1997 Daytona 500

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 11, 2010

16 Feb 1997:  The three drivers of Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon (center), Terry Labonte (left), and Ricky Craven celebrate after finishing 1-2-3 in the NASCAR Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Mandatory Credit:
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

They say that racing fans can remember dates and numbers easily, from the driver and team roster to the memorable times of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Some can name every record time at any track, regardless if it's Atlanta Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, or Watkins Glen International.

Others know when a passerby asks them when the No. 9 bus arrives at their street, that individual will be thinking of Bill Elliott or Kasey Kahne.

Personally, when I think back on February, it's more than just the second month of the year or when lovers decide to shower each other with materialistic goods on Valentine's Day.

For me, February is special because it's when 43 stock car racers put it all on the line, racing at 195 mph with courage and tenacity.

It's three hours of madness, with lightning-fast machines pivoting through the corners just inches apart in three- to four-wide formation around a track that's only 50 feet wide in length.

February is Daytona 500 time for this racing enthusiast and many across the world.

There's a particular date in February that is fond in my memory, not only as a NASCAR fan, but also as a Jeff Gordon aficionado.

That date would be Feb. 16, 1997, when the sport was undergoing its identity change and transition with established but aging veterans duking it out with a particularly talented young racer.

This was back when CBS Sports still did the coverage of this race, with some of the major players in today's FOX Sports team having been a part of the broadcast crew some 13 years ago.

Mike Joy wasn't the lead play-by-play announcer; he was part of a dynamic pit road reporting crew that included Ralph Sheheen and Dr. Dick Berggren, who was then the editor-in-chief of Stock Car Racing magazine.

In the booth that day was the "Dean of Motorsports," also known as Ken Squier, who was working alongside with two great racing legends in the form of Ned Jarrett and Buddy Baker.

Squier could be compared to the NFL's Pat Summerall or MLB's Jack Buck or Vin Scully, calling the race as if he was having a hearty conversation with anyone watching the race at home.

Among the storylines for the 39th running of "The Great American Race" included the typical Dale Earnhardt dramatic saga of trying to catch his white whale on a treacherous 2.5-mile super speedway. It seemed like Earnhardt's defeats in each Daytona 500 were put to a new art form.

He could have the most dominant car and in some fashion, the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy fell victim to mechanical woes, someone else's mess late in the going, a seagull, or just by being beaten out during the final laps of this race.

Still, "The Man In Black" had reason to be optimistic that day as his Monte Carlo mount was among the strongest cars in the field.

There was also the intriguing tale of the front-row starters for the 500, which were not your typical household names with Cup racing.

Pole-sitter Mike Skinner, who finally earned a full-time ride in the most elite level of NASCAR, started alongside journeyman and '93 Nationwide Series champ Steve Grissom.

Skinner won the inaugural Camping World Truck Series title for Richard Childress Racing after going through years of relative obscurity, sweeping the floors of Richard Petty's shop to part-time racing gigs in the West Coast.

Childress saw potential in the Susanville, Calif., native and hired him as his Truck racer in 1995-'96, establishing himself as an aggressive but smart competitor on the track.

Grissom was a case of a driver who had talent but drove for teams that were middling at best in the Cup Series. Having won a title in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, the pride of Gadsen, Ala., was chosen to drive for Larry Hedrick Motorsports' No. 41 Kodiak Chevy entry for the '97 season.

Both driver and team owner felt the combination was there to contend for wins against a highly competitive field at any given race.

Almost as intriguing as the Earnhardt and surprising front-row stories was perennial competitor and Wausau, Wisc., hero Dave Marcis, who was making his 30th start in NASCAR's biggest event of the season.

Despite the tremendous odds against him to win the race, this wing-tipped shoe wearing legend was a popular icon with about any fan base at the track and homes in America because of his dedication and perseverance in the sport.

Of course, the focus was also on the Labonte brothers in Terry and Bobby but for two vast reasons. Terry's title defense started in this very race, with most eyes focused on his yellow and red Kellogg's Corn Flakes Chevy.

Meanwhile, Bobby's efforts to win the Daytona 500 had a bit of intrigue with it as his Joe Gibbs Racing team switched from Chevy skin to the Pontiac Grand Prix brigade for the year, deciding the grass was indeed greener on the "wider side."

Last but not least, 1995 Cup winner and young gun Jeff Gordon was somewhat of a race favorite for the victory, having won 10 races during the '96 season. While improving his results from his title year, inconsistency plagued the No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevy from truly defeating "The Iceman."

Those were some of the storylines surrounding the 1997 Daytona 500 as the race went off to a relatively clean start. Skinner led the field following the first lap, although his No. 31 Lowe's Chevrolet was not enough to hold off teammate Earnhardt for the second circuit around the colossal speedway.

Much to the delight of the fans in the grandstands around the facility, those familiar black and grey colors would lead the race for the next 48 trips, although the event had its frantic moments, especially on lap eight.

Robert Pressley and his No. 29 Cartoon Network/Scooby Doo machine went for a flyer down Daytona's Superstretch, briefly going airborne before landing roughly on its wheels on the concrete pavement.

His violent but brief flight was enough to injure his pelvis and back, as he was immediately taken to the Halifax Health Hospital for further check-ups and exams.

Following that scary accident, the racing action was relatively tame as drivers jockeyed for positions throughout the pack.

While Earnhardt continued to lead the race, teammate Skinner was dropping back to the teens as Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, and Mark Martin made strides and ran in the top-10 for the balance of the first 50 laps.

Trouble would ensue once again on lap 47 when Jimmy Spencer, Derrike Cope, and Geoff Bodine tangled on the backstretch to bring out the second caution of the day.

Spencer's No. 23 Camel Cigarettes Ford Thunderbird suffered a cut tire, immediately slamming into the retaining wall as well as Bodine's QVC car.

As for Cope, he tried to miss the accident but was also collected in the multi-car collision, disappointing his debut behind MB2 Motorsports' No. 36 Skittles Pontiac.

Pit stops were the name of the game during the caution period, which saw Earnhardt's traditionally "Flying Aces" struggling with their routine four-tire changes. Slow stops plagued the No. 3 team throughout the race, greatly frustrating the 45-year-old veteran and new crew chief Larry McReynolds.

When the race resumed under green flag conditions on lap 53, the Wood Brothers saw their Citgo Ford entry up front with Michael Waltrip giving Owensboro, Ky., something to talk about during the race.

Ernie Irvan had other ideas and made a brilliant pass on Waltrip, taking his Texaco/Havoline colors to the front for a few laps. Salinas, Calif., and Robert Yates Racing fans were ecstatic but that moment of euphoria elapsed when another Golden State warrior decided it was his turn to lead the Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon took the inside lane and passed Irvan in turn one for his first of two tenures in the lead. Despite not having the fastest car throughout testing sessions and Speedweeks, the 25-year-old sensation led the next 33 laps with second place shuffling as fast as a lap at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Gordon led the race until lap 90, when Ken Schrader and outside pole-sitter Steve Grissom tried to re-enact the 1979 finish, crashing into each other and the outside retaining wall just before turn three. Both drivers were effectively eliminated from the race, with heavy damage to the front end and rear clips of their Chevrolet chariots.

Another round of pit stops translated into a shuffling of the field. Infrequent racer Greg Sacks shocked about everyone in attendance at Daytona when his No. 20 Hardees' Ford crew reeled off a fast, two-tire pit stop that propelled the New Yorker into the lead. Gordon fell back a few stops due to a lugnut problem while Earnhardt was plagued by yet another terrible pit stop service.

Nevertheless, the race resumed green flag conditions on lap 93, which began a relatively tranquil stretch of racing. Mark Martin would pass a helpless Sacks, being passed in about every lane around him. A brief caution flag period for debris slowed the frenzy around the track on laps 97-98.

For the next 34 laps, the race would deal its biggest card of all and was it ever a dramatic twist with one of the leaders' fate in the event. As Gordon was looking to draft teammate Ricky Craven to the lead, the No. 24 car ran over a piece of debris in turn one, going up high and slowing significantly around the track.

Wisely, crew chief Ray Evernham called his driver down to pit road to change the right side tires, in about 10 seconds. Despite that fast stop, Gordon's new concerns were to somehow come out of pit lane ahead of Martin and Co. and hope that a caution would come out to stay on the lead lap.

It was one of the more dramatic moments of the race, as every competitor knew just how much of a game-breaker it would have been to put a lap on Gordon. One of their greatest threats would be disposed and just a mere car on the track.

Their wishes were damned when the fifth caution of the race came on lap 122, which saw Greg Sacks and Jeff Burton tangling on the backstretch. The attention immediately turned to Gordon, whose Chevrolet crossed the line ahead of Martin's Ford Thunderbird to remain on the lead lap.

Sacks was eliminated from the event with heavy front-end damage while Burton's No. 99 Exide Batteries Thunderbird suffered four flat tires and cosmetic damage to the front valence and rear bumper. Burton would salvage his day with an 11th place result by race's end.

Pit stops were the name of the game once again, with Martin's Valvoline crew living up to their reputation as one of the best in the business.

Jack Roush's loyal racer entered and exited pit road in first position, with the Bowtie Brigade's best contenders in Earnhardt, Craven, and Terry Labonte suddenly becoming part of the mix up front.

The complexion of the race took on a fast pace, with Fords just circling around the track up front. Martin, Irvan, and Bill Elliott led during this segment of the race, with the finish seemingly looking like it'd be a plethora of Blue Oval machines going for the win.

Jacques Debris probably felt it was necessary to make his presence known at the track, as he entered the facility as a piece of aluminum metal just after the start/finish line on the dogleg. Can you guess what happened next?

It was the last round of pit stops, as about every team was assured to make the distance on tires and fuel for the final 32 laps. This caution period was a blessing for guys like Labonte, Craven, and Gordon, who were many seconds behind the lead pack.

Pit strategies unfolded and some contenders took two fresh tires, while others opted for four new "Goodyear Eagles." Crew chiefs and drivers deliberated on either optimum track position or a strong-handling machine for the final laps of the race.

Track position was important but the fresh rubber certainly dictated who would contend for the lead in the final 20 laps. Sterling Marlin, two-time winner of the 500, led briefly until being overtaken by Ernie Irvan for a few laps.

Irvan's lead was all for naught, as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" took command of the race once again for the next 16 circuits, just ahead of Earnhardt and Gordon in the closing stages of this memorable contest.

Depending on any race fan's perspective, it can be said that the most dramatic moment of the race took place on lap 190. For a few race fans, getting up close to the action at Daytona took on a severely new meaning.

As Gordon was setting up to make a pass on Earnhardt for second position, their Chevrolet machines were side-by-side exiting turn two. Earnhardt picked up a push with the No. 24 Chevy loosening up the Goodwrench car on exit and into the backstretch.

The result? Ned Jarrett and Ken Squier of CBS could probably best describe it:

Ned Jarrett : "Here comes Gordon, looks like he's trying to make a pass on Earnhardt. Oh, Jarrett's loose!"

Ken Squier: "Down the backstraightaway, big trouble. Earnhardt, out. Up and over, number three. And for the 19th straight time, Lady Luck...deals a bad hand...to Earnhardt."

Earnhardt's machine broke loose following contact with Gordon and the outside retaining wall, and from that moment, the No. 3 car was just a pinball getting hit by endless flippers.

It was a chain reaction behind Gordon, as Dale Jarrett's car made contact with Earnhardt, sending him flipping briefly and atop Irvan's Ford. When the Goodwrench Chevy's battered spoiler clipped the hood of the Havoline machine, the Texaco star hood was cut off and flew right into some innocent bystanders in the Tiny Lund Grandstand, injuring some race fans.

Some jeers and boos filled the track when Gordon's Chevrolet trailed Elliott to take the caution flag. There was a huge tiremark on the passenger side of the DuPont Chevy, serving as a reminder for the somewhat impatient move made by the anxious racer.

While Gordon tried to explain what happened on the backstretch to his crew chief, his focus had to turn to winning the race despite his unpopular pass. There was still a race to be won and a team owner whose ailment put everything in perspective for the NASCAR community.

Meanwhile, those several minutes were some of the most dramatic moments of NASCAR history. Fans would witness one of the most gutsy and courageous times of Earnhardt.

Sure, his machine was destroyed and the win was all but gone for the Goodwrench team. As he was sitting in the ambulance, the frustrated racer knew it was still raceable to finish the 500 because he "saw four tires on that thing."

"I got out of the ambulance and asked the guy to see if it would crank. It cranked and I told him to get out of there!" Earnhardt said to pit reporter Ralph Sheheen following the race.

Richard Childress' crew prepared themselves to repair their wounded machine, taping about every corner and fender of the remains of his Monte Carlo. Its roof was smashed in, the front fender was dressed in black and the rear decklid was held together by 200 mph tape.

To this day, any race fan would tell sports fanatics that Earnhardt's determination that day was about the most amazing performances of all time, even if the finish wasn't spectacular.

With a race to finish, the attention turned to the front of the field, with Elliott leading and an interesting development with the second through fourth-place drivers. Hendrick Motorsports suddenly found itself with a great shot at victory, with Gordon holding the second spot, followed by Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.

Plotting their strategy over their in-car radio systems, the Hendrick stable knew just how it would attack a helpless Ford racer on the restart.

As the race went underway for its penultimate resumption, Gordon and his teammates paced themselves for a lap behind the McDonald's Ford before making their daring passes on lap 195.

Just below the apron before turn one, Gordon scooted below Elliott to take the lead while teammates Labonte and Craven overwhelmed the Georgian with their daring passes on the outside. Having no drafting partners and out of momentum, the popular veteran relinquished his lead with a Chevrolet show in the top three.

Positions were being swapped competitively, as drivers bump-drafted their way around Daytona for a great finish. When push came to shove, clean racecars became mangled twisted pieces of sheet metal.

Impatience was the name of the game in the final 10 laps, with the caution flag flying for the final time on lap 197 for the biggest crash of the day.

Bobby Hamilton, who was drafting his No. 43 STP Pontiac just outside the top-10, got a bit careless and made contact with Johnny Benson's Pennzoil entry. All hell broke loose and the transition from turn four into the frontstretch became a scene out of Days of Thunder .

Jarrett would get involved in his second wreck of the race, finding himself a helpess victim when Kenny Wallace inadvertently drove his Square D Ford into the Quality Care car, severely damaging both machines.

Benson's car was hit multiple times by Joe Nemechek, Lake Speed, and others while the drivers mid-field had nowhere to escape. When the smoke cleared up, 12 cars were collected in that mayhem.

NASCAR was left in a no-win situation, with the mess in turn four just being too much to clean up in just three laps. Since this was before the period of the green-white-checkered policy that became a norm in 2004, the race ended under a caution flag period.

For Hendrick Motorsports, it capped off a rather amazing day in spite of the late-race controversy with Gordon and Earnhardt. The young racer won his first 500, followed by Labonte and Craven with an unprecedented moment for Cup racing history.

Until that race, no multi-car team had finished one-two-three in a Daytona 500 or in any race. History was made on Feb. 16, 1997, in more ways than an impressive, same team podium finish.

Gordon was given a cell phone when he entered Victory Lane, fulfilling his promise to Rick Hendrick to win the "Super Bowl of stock car racing." Immediately as he got the phone, the Vallejo, Calif., native spoke to his mentor and car owner.

"Did I ever tell you we were gonna do it or what?!" Gordon said with enthusiasm. "I told you, man! Hey, I gotta go talk to the world. We love you so much, and this one's for you! Ok thanks! Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo!"

As he climbed out of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy, Gordon raised his fists in the air, banging the roof of his car like a rock drummer and speaking to CBS Sports' Mike Joy in absolute disbelief and happiness.

"They handed it to me as soon as I got into Victory Lane, and that was the first person I wanted to talk to anyways. No offense, Mike! This one's for Rick Hendrick, one-two-three, that is so awesome!"

As for Earnhardt, it was just another chapter to his frustrating tale as Captain Ahab. Disappointed and distraught, he spoke on a soapbox around several members of the media with a stern look.

"I thought Gordon was a little impatient (at the end), but he was running his race," Earnhardt said dryly. "You know I could have taken him out, too..."

Despite the tensions between the Gordon and Earnhardt fans, years later, both sides could agree that it was one of the best Daytona 500s of all-time.

Just as disappointing as the 1997 running was for the Goodwrench contingency, 1998 was redeeming and ultimately rewarding for every racing fan of all kinds.

Other storyline racers had somewhat solid finishes, as rookie Mike Skinner came home in the 12th spot and veteran racer Dave Marcis limped his Realtree Chevrolet in 17th position.

No matter how one remembers this race, for this racing fan, it was the Daytona 500 that truly got me addicted to NASCAR racing just as much as Super Bowl XXI got me hooked on the NFL.

Gritty determination, teamwork, and surprises were just some of the ways to describe that 39th edition of "The Great American Race." No matter who won or lost that day, it was one of the most memorable NASCAR races for any racing fan.