Race Weekend Central

39 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 39th (1997) Daytona 500

PlayPlay

While Rick Hendrick had already fielded cars in NASCAR for a decade-plus, Hendrick Motorsports vaulted to the top of the NASCAR world in the mid-1990s. Leading the charge Jeff Gordon, the 1995 NASCAR Cup Series champion and foil to Dale Earnhardt, racing the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. 

Terry Labonte, racing the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet, was the reigning champion in 1996 despite winning two races compared to Gordon’s 10.

Hendrick’s third driver, Ricky Craven, took a different trajectory than the dominant Gordon and consistent Labonte.  The Newburgh, Maine, native drove for Larry Hedrick in the No. 41 in 1995 and ‘96, when he returned to NASCAR’s highest division after a cup of coffee in 1991. His most notable moment was his severe accident at Talladega Superspeedway in 1996, when he flipped into the turn 1 catchfence with seven cars driving underneath him on his ascent. 

Hendrick signed Craven in the off season to drive the No. 25, and this three-car operation looked unmatched heading into 1997. After 1996, none of these drivers had ever won the Daytona 500. Hendrick himself was diagnosed with leukemia in the 1996 off season, which added extra pressure to continue his team’s dominance in later seasons. 

See also
44 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 44th (2002) Daytona 500

And then there was Earnhardt.

The Intimidator had won everything there was to win heading into 1997 except the Great American Race. He was already a seven-time champion, and he had lost prior Daytona 500s in seemingly impossible circumstances. No defeat stung worse than the 1990 running, when he cut a tire going into turn 3 just 1 mile from the checkered flag, which resulted in Derrike Cope winning in an all-time upset. The 1997 Daytona 500 was Earnhardt’s 19th try at claiming the Harley J. Earl trophy, and nothing was going to stop him.

The front row for the 1997 season opener contained two surprising names. Mike Skinner had previously raced in the Cup Series, but never full time. He drove for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series the previous two seasons, and he won eight times each year. This earned him a promotion to the Cup Series in 1997, and he put the car on the pole in his first full-time start. On the outside pole was Steve Grissom in Hedrick’s No. 41, Craven’s replacement. 

The Hendrick trio had mixed fortunes in the Gatorade Twin 125s. All three were in the second qualifier. Dale Jarrett won the first 125, and Gordon finished runner-up to Earnhardt in the second duel. Labonte finished eighth and Craven crashed out in the early laps. 

Once the race began, Skinner led the opening lap before Earnhardt quickly dispatched him coming off the second corner on lap two. He continued to pace the field until the first caution on lap nine. Robert Pressley in the No. 29 got turned around on the backstretch, and the car pirouetted once in the air before landing on its wheels. 

Labonte pitted under the caution and restarted 40th on lap 13. Gordon restarted fourth and Craven 29th, up 11 spots from the start. The field broke apart into smaller packs shortly thereafter, with Earnhardt and Skinner leading the way. Gordon remained in fourth, and the front four expanded to a two-plus-second lead over the rest of the field. 

On lap 39, Gordon moved up into second, and he remained there behind Earnhardt until the second caution on lap 48. A multi-car pileup on the backstretch involving Rusty Wallace, Cope and Geoff Bodine occurred right before green flag stops would have started, and all the leaders pitted under caution.

Within five laps, Gordon reclaimed the lead with help from Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin. At the one-third mark of the race, the Hendrick trio had yet to team up. However, Craven was in the top 10 for the first time, running ninth. Labonte was still deeper in the field. 

Earnhardt, meanwhile, picked off one car every couple laps. He passed Irvan for eighth, then Jeff Burton, then Skinner. Before long, he was third, behind Marlin and Gordon.

The No. 24 led until the third caution on lap 89 when Grissom crashed in turn 3. A debris caution shortly after the restart set up another restart just shy of halfway. 

Martin and Marlin teamed up to pass Gordon on the halfway lap, and Gordon fell outside the top five. Craven moved up to fifth, and the checkered flag was now closer than the initial start.

Shortly after halfway, Gordon pitted for a cut tire, which put him on the tail end of the lead lap, 50 seconds behind Martin. He stayed on the lead lap until Burton and Greg Sacks crashed on lap 121 to bring out the fifth caution. 

While Gordon was deep in the field, he still had a chance to win. Craven worked his way up to second, restarting behind Martin. While the front 11 broke away, Gordon stormed through the rest of the pack to get back inside the top 15. Labonte broke into the top 10 for the first time with 50 laps to go, which put all three Hendrick cars plus Earnhardt into the top 15. 

Earnhardt moved up to second behind Bill Elliott with 40 laps to go. Another debris caution, the sixth overall caution of the 500, brought the field to pit road for the final time. Earnhardt stayed in the top three behind Jarrett and Marlin, as Elliott lost several spots on pit road. 

See also
49 Days 'Til Daytona: The 49th (2007) Daytona 500

As the laps ticked down, Gordon, Labonte and Craven all moved up through the field. With 15 to go, Earnhardt was second with Gordon third and Labonte sixth. The front six pulled away from the rest of the field and stayed in the same positions until 12 laps to go, when Gordon pulled out of line to pass Earnhardt.

And then, Earnhardt lost the Daytona 500 once again.

Like so many other 500s before 1997, the incident was not his fault. Contact from Gordon turned the car sideways so quickly that the air lifted it upside down. Jarrett and Irvan were also involved, and Earnhardt drove the car away after he decided he could still finish the race.

While the Intimidator still finished under power, the race he wanted to win for so long eluded him yet again, at least for another year.

However, there was still a race to win, and Gordon restarted second with seven laps to go. Labonte restarted third, and Craven moved up to fourth after he clawed his way to the front of the second pack before Earnhardt’s flip. For the first time all race, the three Hendrick cars were together.

With six to go, Gordon dove under Elliott coming out of the tri-oval and claimed the lead for the first time since lap 90. Labonte and Craven followed Gordon to the bottom of turn 1, and all three cars cleared Elliott by the start-finish line.

Two more laps clicked by with the Hendrick cars out front before the Big One happened in turns 3 and 4. Bobby Hamilton in the No. 43 drifted up slightly into Johnny Benson’s No. 30, which turned him in front of two-thirds of the field. There was nowhere to go for a dozen cars. 

Craven almost passed Labonte during the sprint back to the caution, but all three Hendrick cars took the caution flag running positions one through three with Gordon as the leader.

There was not enough time to get the race restarted after the big accident. Gordon, Labonte and Craven remained in the top three positions as they took the checkered flag at 55 mph. Gordon won his first Daytona 500 in the first 1-2-3 finish for any team in the race. He also became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history at the time, as he was 25 and Richard Petty was 26 when he won his first of seven 500s. 

Earnhardt’s heartbreaking loss only stung for one year, as he won the 1998 Daytona 500. 

While the Hendrick cars did not work together for much of the event, all three drivers played their cards right to get close to the front by the final restart. They worked together as one unit to dispatch Elliott and keep the other cars behind them, especially on the race back to the final caution. This racing was a sneak peek into modern superspeedway racing and the importance of teammate loyalty. 

On a grander scale, it was a team win. Gordon, Labonte and Craven worked together when it mattered the most, and Hendrick won this race as one team, a Cinderella story. 

In many cases, winning as a team exceeds winning as an individual, and it strongly indicates an organization at the top of its craft, which Hendrick still is to this day.

About the author

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Drew

My parents were there in Daytona Beach for the Daytona 500 and of course my mom was a Jeff Gordon fan and my dad was a Mike skinner fan.

wildcats2016

I watched this on TV and was thrilled! It’s a nice memory. Hard to believe it was that long ago.

Bill B

This race was the beginning for me. It made me a Jeff Gordon fan and a NASCAR fan. I started watching every race from then on and went to at least a race or two a year. Well, until NASCAR started changing everything and pretty much put fans second to what’s most profitable and what the television networks wanted.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
Share via