DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 10, 2010) — At the outset of the 1999 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the “changing of the guard,” so to speak, had already taken place for all practical purposes.
At that point, Jeff Gordon had won the series championship three times in the previous four years. Dale Earnhardt’s last title was but a speck in the rear-view mirror, having happened in 1994.
Gordon, the rookie of the year in 1993, winner of the inaugural Indianapolis event in ’94, had captured championships in ’95, ’97 and ’98.
In the 1999 Daytona 500, Gordon added some punctuation to that three-year run of domination which had ended an era and polarized the sport’s fan base. “Gordon vs. Earnhardt” had become a theme for each and every race, with the older racer typically getting the better end of the deal in terms of fan support. Gordon took to telling people he didn’t mind all the boos during pre-race introductions. “As long as they’re booing, I knowI’m still winning; when they stop booing I’ll get worried,” Gordon would say.
Gordon, you see, had usurped a legend, much like Darrell Waltrip had done years before when knocking the “King”, Richard Petty, off his throne with three titles in the first half of the 1980s.
Any fans who weren’t convinced of that prior to the 1999 Daytona 500 had to be ready to agree after the race, which Gordon won by only .128-second over Earnhardt.
And while their duel over the race’s last 10 laps was memorable, it actually was somewhat overshadowed by Gordon’s charge to the front 11 laps from the finish. Riding below the yellow line to get past leader Rusty Wallace, Gordon had to squeeze his No. 24 Chevrolet between Wallace on his right and Ricky Rudd on his left, entering Turn 1; Rudd had just rolled off pit road to return to the race and was travelling considerably slower than the oncoming pack of cars.
Then, after staving off Wallace and Mike Skinner for the rest of the lap, Gordon held the lead for good. Earnhardt soon settled in behind him and tried a variety of passing attempts the rest of the way, none of them successful.
Said Gordon: “Trying to keep Earnhardt behind me was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in a race car. He was setting me up every lap. I really thought he was going to get me.
“To pull off a big win like that is exciting, especially because of the way it came down to Dale Earnhardt and myself."