DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett had been saying all week that to win a race, a driver no longer can wait until the last lap to make his move. Yesterday, in the 42nd Daytona 500, Jarrett proved his point and came home the winner for the third time in his expanding career.
On a restart at the beginning of Lap 197, Johnny Benson's Pontiac was in the lead. He brought the field down slowly, trying to dull Jarrett's attack, but going through the second turn, Jarrett faked high. Benson turned the steering wheel slightly to the right before jerking back to the left, but it was already too late.
The nose of Jarrett's Ford had found space below Benson's rear bumper and with a boost from Jeff Burton, whose Ford was running close behind, he completed the pass down the backstretch to take the lead.
At that point, it looked as if Burton and Bill Elliott, running second and third behind him, would team up to attempt to pass Jarrett in the same way. But as those two made their plans, Jimmy Spencer hit the wall and brought out the yellow caution flag on Lap 198, and the race was over -- the cars made the final two laps with their finishing positions frozen.
The victory moved Jarrett into elite company, tying him with Bobby Allison for third on the all-time Daytona 500 winners' list. Only Richard Petty, with his record seven 500 wins, and Cale Yarborough, with four, have more.
"It's really incredible," said Jarrett, 43, who also won in 1993 and 1996. "When I started racing and came here, I dreamed like everyone does of winning Daytona. This is an incredible victory, a total team effort, but the thing that means the most to me was that Richard Petty made the effort to come out and shake my hand. It surprised me, and it sent chills down my spine."
Jarrett, son of two-time Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett, has been a late bloomer. He is a 23-race winner, but 20 of those victories have come in the past five years since joining Robert Yates Racing. Only last season did he win his first Winston Cup title.
For a brief moment Saturday evening, Jarrett wasn't at all sure his Quality Care Ford would make yesterday's race. During the final practice of the afternoon, he got caught up in a fender-bender with Jeff Gordon and Elliott that could have been a lot worse.
As it was, it took 15 to 20 crewmen, including three fabricators who flew in from North Carolina, 12 hours to do the necessary cosmetic repairs to get the car on the starting line for yesterday's race.
Jarrett, who led 86 laps, said he had only four laps of uneasiness during the race. That was at the start. On Lap 5, he took the lead for the first time and discovered his car was every bit as good as it had been all week.
He won at an average speed of 155.669 mph in 3 hours, 12 minutes, 43 seconds. Jarrett collected $2.28 million for the victory, which included a $1 million bonus as part of a Winston promotion.
Behind Jarrett, four Fords rounded out the top five, as Burton, Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin followed Jarrett home. Bobby Labonte wound up sixth in the highest-finishing Pontiac and his brother, Terry, was seventh in the best performance by a Chevrolet.
"A couple years ago, the Chevrolets were all coming home in the top five," said Burton. "Remember, they were saying we should have crying towels. Now, it's their turn. It's cyclical."
All week, the Chevrolet and Pontiac teams complained the Fords had an unfair advantage. They said the design of the new Taurus was aerodynamically better than their cars and, because of that, were better able to adjust to NASCAR's new rules that made every competitor here use the same shock absorber and springs.
Yesterday, though the Chevrolets and Pontiacs did show improved performances from Thursday's Twin 125-mile qualifying races, it was obvious most of the day that when racing side-by-side for the lead, the Fords were the stronger cars.
Only Mike Skinner, who managed to come out ahead in his Chevrolet in a jockeying battle on Lap 2, made a competitive pass, and he was able to hold the lead for only two laps.
Benson, who was driving a Pontiac, managed to steal the lead on Lap 156, when his crew chief, James Ince, decided to give his driver a chance at victory.
The leaders pitted under caution, Ince put only two new tires on Benson's car, filled the gas tank and sent him back on the track in the lead in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott, who had also taken just two tires. Martin and Jarrett, who had taken four each, emerged running fourth and fifth.
It was only Benson's fourth 500, but despite that and the fact that his car didn't even have a sponsor until yesterday, he held off the rest of the field for 38 laps, until the caution bunched everyone together on Lap 197 for that restart.