DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It wasn't fate that beat Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 this time. It was Ernie Irvan.
Passing the menacing "Man in Black" on the 195th lap, Irvan won the wreck-marred 33rd running of stock car racing's most glamorous race when the desperate Earnhardt spun out on the backstretch of Lap 198, taking Davey Allison with him.
Irvan had about a four car-length lead over Earnhardt and Allison, who had been racing side by side for second place for a good 10 miles.
It did not appear that either would overtake the 32-year-old Californian, but, said Earnhardt, "We were going for it. We were going for the Daytona 500. We weren't leading it, so we were trying to go to the front. I lost control of the car and spun into Davey."
Earnhardt managed to limp back into the race to finish fifth, just as he had a year ago when he cut a tire while leading on the final lap.
But pole-sitter Allison's Ford Thunderbird became embedded in the banking that separates the racetrack from Lake Lloyd, and he finished 15th.
"I ain't happy," Allison said. "We had a chance to win this race. Without that incident, I think we could have gotten around Ernie."
Kyle Petty, who led more laps than any other driver, also was a victim of the wreck, although he managed to continue through Turn 4 before slamming into the inside wall to put an end to what had been an impressive run.
"Davey and Earnhardt were just racing," Petty said. "Earnhardt's car just kept getting looser and looser. But Davey's car was loose, too. Neither one could get away from the other one. Dale spun up the racetrack in front of me. I couldn't turn left. I would have gone right into him. He came back over the racetrack, and I ran right over him. I had as good a shot as anybody else to win this thing until we came off Turn 2."
Irvan, who witnessed the crash in his rear-view mirror, said, "The first thing I thought was, 'Don't let off the throttle because somebody'll blow right by me.' I didn't let loose until I got to the start-finish line. When I got into Turn 3 I saw a bumper laying on the racetrack and I thought about what happened to Dale last year."
There were still two laps to go when Irvan got to the start-finish line, but with the yellow flag out for the ninth time Irvan knew the race was over. He yelled into his radio: "Guess what, guys -- I think we got this won."
A lap later he was biting his tongue as his car started to run out of gas.
"Everything was looking pretty cool," Irvan said, "then I go into Turn 1 on the white-flag lap and it starts sputtering. I said, 'No way; this can't happen.' I brought it down onto the apron, and it kept coughing and sputtering and spitting all the way into Turn 3 before it caught again."
He brought it slowly along the apron behind the pace car to pick up the checkered flag in only his third Daytona 500 start. He averaged 148.148 mph and earned $233,000.
Sterling Marlin finished second after dodging through the wreckage, and Joe Ruttman took third.
NASCAR's new pit rules, prohibiting changing tires during caution periods, played a huge role in race strategy. Until Richard Petty's spin on Lap 184 brought out a late yellow, it appeared that it would end in a shootout between Darrell Waltrip and Earnhardt, with Kyle Petty still having an outside chance, and, admitted Earnhardt, "I don't think I could have run Darrell down."
Those were the only three cars that had made their final scheduled fuel stops, although when the yellow came out leader Rusty Wallace decided he would go for it, even though it meant going 60 laps without refueling.
It turned out to be academic. Earnhardt, as expected, jumped past Wallace and Waltrip into the lead on the restart, but as the cars came down to the start-finish line, Kyle Petty tapped Wallace, sending the 1989 Winston Cup champion spinning out of control into the grass.
Wallace's Pontiac clipped the nose of Waltrip's Chevy, and two more contenders bit the dust.
Earnhardt wasn't the only person who was glad to see the yellow flag for Richard Petty's spin. Irvan had made his last pit stop on the green, taking in a quick gulp of gasoline just as Petty was beginning his wild ride out of Turn 2.
"I knew that was a blessing in disguise," he said. "I radioed my crew, 'This caution's great.' It bunched 'em all up so I didn't have to run anybody down. The car was handling good. We were the fastest in the race at that point. I knew if I was patient I could slip by them."
After Wallace's subsequent wreck there were just seven laps to go when the green flag dropped. By the end of Lap 194, Irvan had his front bumper glued to the rear of Earnhardt's black Chevy Lumina.
"Coming off the fourth turn," Irvan said, "I thought to myself, 'I can push him into winning the Daytona 500, or maybe I can pass him and he'll push me to the Daytona 500 win.'
"There's no one I'd rather see win the Daytona 500 than Dale Earnhardt, but something told me it would be better if I drafted by him."
Earnhardt now is 0-for-13 in the Daytona 500 in his otherwise illustrious racing career.