DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He drove without a jinx. He was happy, poised, confident, and had a very, very good car.
All Dale Earnhardt couldn't do was the one thing he was sure he could.
He couldn't beat Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt, who broke a 19-year drought by winning last year's Daytona 500, failed to repeat, finishing second to 1997 500 champion Jeff Gordon, who held off Earnhardt through a dramatic final 10 laps in the Daytona 500 Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
"We're happy to get second," Earnhardt said, "but we sure would love to be down there in Victory Lane."
The finish meant a frustrating end to yet another successful week for Earnhardt at Daytona. He won a 10th consecutive 125-mile qualifier Thursday, and Friday won the IROC series race for a fifth time.
Success produced confidence, too.
Thursday, after the qualifier, Earnhardt was asked about the 27-year-old Gordon, a three-time Winston Cup champion considered heir apparent to Earnhardt as the series' premier driver.
"Boy Wonder don't scare me here," Earnhardt said.
That's because of any track, Earnhardt -- despite his past frustrations -- drives particularly well at the 2.5-mile trioval at Daytona. He has won 33 races there, a record.
Yesterday, however, Boy Wonder got the lead late, and despite his experience, the seven-time Winston Cup champion couldn't pass him in the final laps.
"I was trying all I could to get to the 24 (Gordon)," Earnhardt said. "His car was pretty strong off the corners. If I could have just got him in the corner, I might could have got under him, but I couldn't get there. I got beat."
Earnhardt fell as low as 20th early, but worked back to 10th on Lap 130. He ran in the Top 10 thereafter, and by Lap 170, he was second behind long-time leader Rusty Wallace.
Earnhardt pressured Wallace for several laps, but slipped to fourth behind Gordon, Wallace and Mike Skinner when Gordon passed Wallace for the lead on Lap 189. Earnhardt passed Wallace and Skinner -- the latter being his teammate with Richard Childress racing -- to move into second on Lap 193.
Childress said Earnhardt helped Gordon to the front late in the race, but once they were there, didn't expect any help in return.
"Once you get up to the front, it's anybody's deal," Childress said.
After that, Earnhardt tried repeatedly to pass Gordon. His ideal, he said, would have been to work with Skinner, but Skinner couldn't get past third-place finisher Kenny Irwin.
"I would have much rather been behind the black 3 (Earnhardt)," Skinner said.
Irwin said Earnhardt motioned throughout the final laps that he wanted drafting help to pass Gordon, but Irwin couldn't get close enough to Earnhardt to help Earnhardt pass.
"I think he would have pushed Dale forward if he could have," Skinner said.
"My car just wouldn't suck up good like you could see some other cars do," Irwin said. "I kept trying to get a run of (Turn) 2 or (Turn) 4 to do that, but every time I did it it actually slowed our car down."
Which left Earnhardt to pursue a second consecutive Daytona 500 victory alone.
"I was just trying to get some help," Earnhardt said. "The 28 car (Irwin) and the 31 car (Skinner) were trying to race each other. I couldn't really muster much on Jeff. I was sitting there waiting, trying to go and I couldn't go. If Skinner was behind me, maybe he could have pushed me. I just couldn't get to him.
"It just wasn't meant to be, I reckon."
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