Dale Earnhardt was right where he wanted to be, barreling along in second place with the lead pack coming down to the end of the Daytona 500.
Coming off the high-banked second turn with momentum, 11 laps from the finish, Jeff Gordon moved alongside to challenge--Gordon on the inside and Earnhardt up along the wall--for the position behind Bill Elliott.
Suddenly, Earnhardt’s Chevrolet was upside down, bouncing along on its roof, being banged around like a billiard ball by Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett.
The car flipped back on its wheels and after sliding to a stop, Earnhardt climbed out and got in the ambulance.
“I felt like I was OK, and when I looked back over at the car, I said, ‘Man, the wheels ain’t knocked off that car yet,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I got out of the ambulance, walked over there and told the guy in the car to see if it would fire up.
“It fired up and I said, ‘Get out.’ I got in and we took off after ‘em. You’ve got to get all the laps you can. That’s what we’re running the championship for.
“I hate it we tore up the race car, but I’m sure the guys can build another one. We’ll be ready to come back next week and win at Rockingham.”
Although he lost five laps, Earnhardt finished the race in 31st place. Earlier, he had led 48 laps, more than anyone but Mark Martin, who had 52.
Earnhardt’s analysis of the accident:
“When we came off of turn two, Gordon was on the inside of me and got up against me tight. My car pushed and scuffed the wall a little bit. I got back into him a little, and I checked off the throttle. Somebody behind me turned me, and when it turned sideways it started going on its top.”
After the race, Earnhardt gave Gordon a congratulatory thumbs up sign, but later said he thought Gordon showed a little impatience.
“I’m sure I didn’t do anything that Dale wouldn’t have done,” Gordon said. “What I did didn’t cost him the wreck. I had the inside line, we were both racing for position. Sure, it was awfully tight, we both wanted that second place. When I saw him slide up a little and open the door, I jumped at it.
“When he hit the wall, I thought he might collect me, but I was lucky he hit me square on the side. If he’d hit me at a little angle, he could have spun me around and got me involved too. That was plain old good fortune. It takes things to happen like that to win the Daytona 500.”
Jarrett, who was right behind Earnhardt and Gordon, said “Jeff didn’t do anything. All he was doing was passing Earnhardt. Earnhardt . . . lost it.
“It was just close racing, with everybody racing hard. And when you race hard and the tires get worn, things happen. I saw Jeff go under him, and I knew Dale was having to get out of the gas. I was going with Jeff, but Dale came back off the wall and I guess I got into him.”
Debris from the Earnhardt accident flew into the stands and injured two spectators. George Ray Anderson, 44, of Chase City, Va., suffered a broken arm, and Edward Sunders, 42, of Chambersburg, Pa., had a bruised knee. Both were released from the infield care center.