DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- What would happen if the biggest race of all ever came down to Jeff Gordon leading and Dale Earnhardt filling up his rear-view mirror on the last lap?
The answer to the question asked a thousand times came Sunday in an exhilarating finish to the 41st Daytona 500.
Gordon didn't flinch, and Earnhardt didn't make the pass. The 27-year-old superstar beat the 47-year-old master by one car length for his second 500 victory, earning a motorsports record $2,172,246 that included a $1 million bonus from Winston.
"Trying to keep him behind me was one of the toughest things I ever had to do in a race car," Gordon said, still excited an hour after the race. "But I wanted it bad, and he wanted it bad, and that's why it was such a great race."
Gordon, indeed, raced as though he wanted the win. Starting seventh on a green-flag restart on the 179th of 200 laps, he quickly moved into position to challenge for his first lead since the 20th lap.
With 11 laps remaining, Gordon dipped almost onto the grass going into Turn 1 to pass Earnhardt for second and pull even with Rusty Wallace for the lead -- barely missing the lapped car of Ricky Rudd.
Gordon, Wallace and Mike Skinner then raced three abreast all the way to Turn 3 before Gordon finally moved to the front, using Earnhardt's help from behind in a draft. Gordon led the rest of the way in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, pulling Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevy and five other cars in a six-car lead draft.
Kenny Irwin finished third in a Ford, Skinner fourth in a Chevy and surprising Michael Waltrip fifth in a Ford.
"Those are the longest (11) laps I've ever run around Daytona," Gordon said, referring to the fact Earnhardt was behind him. "He was trying to set me up on every lap. I really thought he was going to get me.
Earnhardt hinted at attempting a pass several times before finally taking his best shot coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap. He dove several feet inside the white line to get an inside position, but Gordon moved left and blocked him. That was the race.
The runner-up finish was Earnhardt's fourth in the 500 in 1993 and came one year after he finally won the race in his 20th attempt.
"His car was stronger from the center of the corner (coming) off," Earnhardt said. "I just never could get to him. If I could have got to him, I could have got a bumper up under him. It wasn't meant to be, I reckon."
After Gordon took the checkered flag, Earnhardt appeared to pull next to him and give some kind of congratulatory sign.
"He didn't pull up beside me, he drove into the side of me," Gordon said, laughing. "He just waved and seemed to be saying, `Hey, this car's going to the Daytona USA (attraction), and I'm going to put my mark on the side of it before it goes in.
"I think that we both knew it was a great, exciting race. There have been several times when mention has been made about Gordon and Earnhardt, you know, coming down to the finish. Even though we battled for a championship in '95, we really didn't have many hard battles. I can't think of a better way to do it than in the 500."
Known more for his ability to finesse a race car at high speeds than his aggressive tactics, Gordon has made some of the boldest moves in Daytona history in recent years.
His three-wide pass for the lead Sunday was a repeat of a Turn 1 pass he made with teammate Terry Labonte of Bill Elliott in '97. Gordon went on to win his first 500 that year.
"This time, I came very close to having to lift off the gas (because of Rudd)," Gordon said. "Rusty did everything he was supposed to, running me down low. There's a lot of apron there, and I used as much as I could.
"Rudd was moving very slowly. The split second I was getting ready to lift off the gas or touch the brakes is the split second Ricky must have seen me and moved a little bit."
Gordon's earnings included the $1 million "No Bull 5" bonus, which is available to any driver who can win a race after finishing in the top five of the previous bonus race. Gordon has claimed the bonus three times since its inception in 1998. The victory also was his third straight dating back to last season and comes on the heels of a 13-win championship year.
Rick Hendrick, who owns Gordon's team, was unable to attend because he is continuing to undergo treatment for cancer and was weakened by a virus.
Several contenders Sunday were felled by engine problems, a crash and questionable pit-stop strategy.
Bobby Labonte, who won the other Twin 125 on Thursday, experienced an engine skip early in the race after leading twice for 20 laps. He limped to a 25th-place finish, two laps off the pace.
Dale Jarrett, who led once for 14 laps, was eliminated in a 12-car crash on Lap 136. Jarrett was trying to find a place in line coming through Turn 3 when he was apparently nudged onto the apron by teammate Irwin. A demolition derby ensued after Jarrett's car shot back up the track into the path of Terry Labonte's Chevy.
Mark Martin, runner-up to Gordon for the championship last year, also was caught up in the wreck.
Wallace, who has never won the Daytona 500, led three times for 104 laps. His Ford was the strongest car on the track until his crew elected not to take on fresh tires during the final caution period from laps 175-178.
Gordon, Earnhardt and most of the other leaders did take on four new tires, and their cars were faster at the end.
"Looking back on it right now, maybe if I would have had a little more grip in the tires, I might have been able to hold that bottom line a little better," Wallace said.
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