Gordon's instincts put him back in Victory Lane in 1999 Daytona 500

2/6/2008 - NASCAR

Remember those martial arts movies that used to come on every Sunday morning? The ones from the 1970s that starred Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris, in which our hero always walked into an empty warehouse where a massive gang of fighters was waiting to ambush him?

They'd come at him in waves, each line of hoods that much bigger and badder than the last. But in the end, somehow, some way, Bruce or Chuck always ended up mowing them down like a weed eater.

On Sunday, Feb. 14, 1999, one of those movies was on again. Only this time, the fighter on the defensive was Jeff Gordon, surrounded by a gang of 42.

"I have never felt so alone on a racetrack," the then-27-year-old admitted that evening. "At first, it makes you mad that no one wants to help you. Then you realize that it's actually the biggest compliment that you can get in this sport."

Why the animosity from his peers? Consider this: The '99 Daytona 500 was the first race since the close of the '98 season.

And what Gordon had accomplished during said season was only what amounts to the most decimating beatdown in NASCAR's modern era. In case you have forgotten (his rivals still have not), here's the damage report:

  • 33 starts

  • 13 wins (Still a modern era record)

  • 26 top-5s (Yet another)

  • 28 top-10s (Then a record, which he eclipsed in 2007)

  • $9.3 million won, including the Winston Million bonus (Then another record)

  • Seven poles

  • Two DNFs

  • Average finish for the season: 5.7

  • He won four races in a row (Tying another record)

  • He won his third Cup title in four years and second consecutive

To make matters worse, he had sent everyone off into the winter with two consecutive victories, including a drink-in-the-face romp at Atlanta, where he led 113 of 221 laps. He also led the league in commercials shot, merchandise sold and number of swooning female fans during prerace introductions.

Wonder why everyone hated him?

"That year was one of those deals that come along once in a lifetime," said Richard Petty, the man who held most of the records Gordon either broke or tied in '98. "But take it from me. It's not the best way to make friends."

And Daytona, then as it is now, is no place to be racing without friends.

On that Valentine's Day, there was no love in the air or the draft for the No. 24 DuPont Chevy. Time and time again, Gordon set himself up for a charge into the lead, and time and time again, he was left out to dry, stuck right where he had started.

By the second half of the race, the rainbow-colored car also was adorned with big black doughnuts on the sides, the racing equivalent of "Get away from me." In the cockpit, Gordon was soaked in sweat and his hands were beginning to cramp from correcting his car after so many such shots.

"I remember we got into the late stages of that race, and I looked at the guys and just laughed," said then-crew chief Ray Evernham, who abruptly left the team later that season. "Everyone in the race did all they could to make sure that Jeff wasn't going to win, but here he was, running up in the top five the hard way. He'd had to do it himself.

"The worst thing they could have done at that point was make him mad. But that's exactly what they did."

Forced to work alone, Gordon began the most stupefying series of moves ever seen at the World Center of Racing.

He slipped in and out of drafts, taking whatever air he could find. He cut in front of onrushing lines of cars before they had a chance to blow by him and shut him out. He split up teammates, used up enemies and reminded everyone why they hated him so much in the first place.

He was better than they were.

With 11 laps remaining, Gordon rode the unlikely and unwitting help of Richard Childress Racing's two cars -- Dale Earnhardt, who was going for his second consecutive 500 victory, and Mike Skinner, the former Truck Series champ who already had led 31 laps on the day.

At just the moment when the two RCR cars were moving into position to draft by him, Gordon split them apart, using a push from the No. 31 car to blast into second by the start-finish line. The only car left to pass was Rusty Wallace's No. 2. Wallace had come to Speedweeks '99 as the new "best driver to never win the 500," a title he had seized the moment Earnhardt had won 12 months earlier.

As Wallace and his 0-of-16 streak hammered their way toward Turn 1, Gordon was riding a blue streak -- and Skinner's blue hood -- to the inside. That was when the greatest -- and most frightening -- game of "who will blink first" in Daytona history began.

"I could see Ricky Rudd was running very slowly down on the apron," Gordon said last year. "Rusty was protecting the inside lane like he should have and forced me down there. My brain was doing a lot of math real quick. Like, what's going to happen first? Am I going to get around Rusty? Am I going to have to get into brakes real hard?

"Or am I about crash like no one has ever seen before?"

Jeff Gordon

There are races where things happen almost in slow motion. You can remember every little bump and move and thought you had. What happened that lap happened so fast, you look back and figure that it was all pure instinct.

-- Jeff Gordon

"I'll be honest," Wallace said that week. "I thought Ricky was going to be killed right there."

At the last possible instant, Rudd eased a few feet to the left, Gordon forced his way to the right and Wallace hesitated just enough for the No. 24 to slip by, up the banking and into the lead.

Skinner, who had swung his ride way high in anticipation of a crash, went by Wallace to the outside and closed on Gordon, who quickly spotted Earnhardt's car en route to help his teammate and cut in front of him to grab the momentum and put some distance into his lead.

It took about 350 words and seven paragraphs to describe everything that happened between the start-finish line and the entrance to Turn 1. In real time, it took all of about eight seconds.

"There are races where things happen almost in slow motion," Gordon said a year later. "You can remember every little bump and move and thought you had. What happened that lap happened so fast, you look back and figure that it was all pure instinct. Just reacting and surviving and trying to get to the lead and stay there."

The lead is exactly where Gordon stayed for the race's final 10 laps, holding off Earnhardt and out-of-nowhere third-place finisher Kenny Irwin. Skinner finished fourth; Wallace faded all the way back to eighth.

Once again, the Sunday matinee hero had taken the mob's best shots. And once again, the throwdown had ended with one man standing alone amid a pile of would-be assassins.

Just like Bruce and Chuck.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.