Originally created 07/06/97

Tony Fabrizio: John Andretti kept his chin up and his foot down



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Green flag restart, one lap to go in Saturday's "Anybody But Jeff Gordon 400" at Daytona International Speedway.

You could feel the emotional pull for the man in second. That would be Dale Earnhardt, he of seven Winston Cup championships, a 42-race winless streak and several heartbreaks in that other race run here in February.

But there was an even stronger charge in the air, one that would return not one but two great racing names to Victory Lane.

Cale Yarborough hadn't won as a car owner in 292 tries, an astonishing fact considering how unrelenting he had been as a driver. John Andretti hadn't finished in the top three in 109 starts as a driver, a mark against the proud racing pedigree of the Andretti family and John's own solid reputation earned in Indy cars and other machines.

This would be their afternoon, though, the kind Yarborough envisioned when he heeded the advice of crew chief Tony Furr last year and hired the 5-foot-5, 140-pound track rat who had failed with three other teams.

After dominating most of the race in a red Ford that was the class of the field, Andretti was informed by radio that he would have to win one more lap. His first victory would not come cheaply, for he would have to contend not only with a mirror full of Earnhardt, but also a charging Dale Jarrett and other heavyweights.

At least Andretti wouldn't have to race Jeff Gordon, a winner seven times in '97 and twice in the previous four points events here. Gordon lost it coming out of Turn 2 on Lap 125 and banged up his Chevy good. The mishap and Gordon's ensuing 21st place finish warmed many in the crowd of 120,000 who apparently would rather have seen Mike Tyson win.

Andretti didn't flinch. He feathered the accelerator at the start-finish line, craftily blocking Earnhardt from making a move low, then sped away when Jarrett broke the draft to challenge Earnhardt for second.

When a seven-car crash broke out behind him in Turn 3, Andretti stayed low and beat surviving Terry Labonte to the checkered flag by a car length.

"I heard Jeff Gordon say a couple of years ago when he won this race that he wanted to keep Earnhardt close so he wouldn't get a run on him," Andretti said. "That's what I wanted to do. I accomplished that, and then when I saw (Jarrett) pull beside Earnhardt, I thought, this is really good. Down the back chute, they kind of went five abreast, and I knew that was even better."

If there weren't many Andretti fans on the grounds, there were few patrons who didn't enjoy seeing him finally succeed. Or the forgotten hero Yarborough walk into Victory Lane.

Yarborough drove into Victory Lane 83 times, more than all but Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. A tough-as-nails driver from Sardis, S.C., who once wrestled an alligator, Yarbrough won eight major races at this speedway. As a car owner since 1987, though, he had overseen only a smattering of competitive runs. He once went through five drivers in a single season, failing to register a top-10 finish.

"Right now I'm tickled to death to be tied with Richard Petty," Yarborough joked, referring to the fact that Petty has been similarly woeful since his retirement, winning only once as a proprietor.

Andretti, the nephew of open-wheel legend Mario and cousin of accomplished Indy man Michael, John came to NASCAR in 1993. John's best previous effort was a fourth this year at Talladega in the Winston 500, a race he might have won had any of the other drivers trusted in his abilities enough to draft with him.

Mario called after Talladega, "telling me to kind of keep my chin up and keep at 'em and they'll come."

John Andretti kept his chin up and his foot down Saturday, and two great racing names returned to victory in the Pepsi 400.