DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Burton saw it coming. So did Bill Elliott. So did Mark Martin. So did Rusty Wallace. So did 200,000 fans at the Daytona International Speedway and a national television audience. And for that matter, so did Johnny Benson.
Although his car was damaged in a crash during practice Saturday, Dale Jarrett still was too fast to finish second to Benson in Sunday's Daytona 500. So with four laps remaining in the Great American Race, Jarrett turned expectations into reality with a pass that took him all the way to Victory Lane and a stock car-record payday of $2,277,975.
"I had a feeling Dale Jarrett was going to get by him," Burton said after finishing second. "I knew what Dale Jarrett was going to do. His car really accelerates well."
Benson, whose team barely made the 43-car starting lineup and landed a full-time sponsor just 12 hours before the start of the race, was a longshot against the world in the closing laps. His Pontiac Grand Prix stayed out front for 39 laps, but Jarrett was never more than a few feet off his back bumper.
A caution for a five-car crash set up a four-lap dash to the checkered flag, and that was the opportunity Jarrett needed to win his third Daytona 500 and kick off his defense of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship in impressive style.
Jarrett faked high in the first turn on the restart with four laps to go and Benson took the bait. As he veered right to block Jarrett's speeding Ford Quality Care Ford Taurus, Jarrett made a hard left and got inside Benson. After that, it was a mere formality.
"I knew Johnny was going to try to block me wherever I went," the winner said. "I knew that he knew it was critical time, especially with the horsepower I had. The car came up to speed really well and Johnny made just enough of a move when I faked to the outside that it let me get down to the inside. I came down off the banking (in the second turn) and I got a big head of steam.
"It was going to be a late try on Benson. I felt like I could make a move. I figured out where I could make the move and when it was time to make the move. I was confident once I got out front, they couldn't pass me because my car was that fast."
Benson never had a chance, especially against a swarm of five Fords committed to ganging up on the driver who never has had a top-three finish in 129 career starts. Once Jarrett opened the door, Benson couldn't get back in line until he was in 12th place.
"I wish I had a little more than I had, but that's all I had," Benson said after finishing 12th. "I knew what they were going to do, and I did everything I could to prevent it. Dale's car was just too strong coming off Turn 2, and he got underneath me.
"I knew that was going to happen two laps before it went green (after the caution). I didn't matter where I went. You had all those Fords against one Pontiac and there's nothing you can do. Dale Jarrett knew that, and there was nothing I could do."
Another caution with one lap to go for a single-car crash on the front stretch allowed Jarrett to cross the finish line without a challenge. NASCAR doesn't allow any passing during a caution period, even if it means the yellow and checkered flags are waved simultaneously.
"Even if we didn't have that last caution, I don't think we could have beaten the 88 car (Jarrett)," Burton said.
Jarrett, who won the pole position at 191.091 mph and a pair of all-star races for pole winners leading up to the Daytona 500, led 85 of the first 90 laps around the 2.5-mile raceway. Then he fell behind Mark Martin for 65 laps, seemingly content with riding along in second place.
Derrike Cope's blown engine with 31 laps to go allowed all the lead teams to make a final pit stop for gas and tires. A handful -- Benson, Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robby Gordon and Terry Labonte -- cut a lot of time on pit road by only taking two tires. The rest took four.
That vaulted Benson from eighth place to the lead with 43 laps remaining. He stayed there until Jarrett finally mounted a charge with four to go.
"Dale drove an excellent race," Benson said. "He deserved to win. He had the better car."
In all, Jarrett led a race-best 89 laps. He averaged 155.669 mph and was one of seven drivers who made nine lead changes.
A large portion of Jarrett's car was rebuilt late Saturday and early Sunday after he was involved in a crash late Saturday in the final practice session. The team replaced the front bumper and right fender, as well as making repairs to the rear bumper and hood with a couple hours to spare.
"If (crew chief) Todd Parrott puts it out there, I have confidence," Jarrett said. "Once I got out to the lead (on the fifth lap), I knew the car was all right. I knew it was fast."
While no drivers were hurt in either of the two wrecks in the final seven laps, a crewman for Tony Stewart's team was injured on pit road. Mike Lingerfelt, 23, of Marietta, S.C., suffered a broken thigh bone after he was struck by Stewart while pulling out of the pits. Lingerfelt was taken to Halifax Medical Center, where he underwent surgery late Sunday.
The Winston Cup Series moves to the North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham next Sunday for the DuraLubeKmart 400.
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