There is a Season: One Score

The Setup

I was 13 at the time of the 1999 Daytona 500. I had never watched a full race in my lifetime with the exception of attending a few exhibition races when tickets were extremely cheap and family members would ask me to go. Despite my lack of interest in racing, my proximity to the Daytona International Speedway (living in Central Florida just north of Orlando) provided exposure to the special feel of racing at Daytona. There was something unique about this major sporting event happening almost in your own backyard, right up Interstate. Big name drivers would rush into town, setting up show cars in the parking lots of countless grocery and strip mall chains. You felt the tremendous pull of the Daytona 500, even if you didn’t attend. The first race I attended was the 1996 Busch Clash, of which I remember little. I do however remember the program that was bought for me; in fact, I still have it. The black cover commemorated 25 years of Pontiac as the official pace car of the Daytona 500. It was kind of lame, looking back, but as an 11 year old, the silver patch that came glued to the cover was something I cherished. I believe that was the last year the program included a patch on the cover. Inside of the program was an insert for Upper Deck that included one of their “Predictor” cards. If the driver on your card won the Daytona 500, you could send it in for the entire set of 10 “Predictor” cards. The driver on the card in my program was Rusty Wallace. Without watching the entire 1996 Daytona 500, I did keep tabs on Rusty in the hopes that I might just win that 10 card set. He finished 16th, I wouldn’t watch a race for another 3 years. The name and face on that card would lay dormant but would not be forgotten.

For reasons I cannot remember now, the 1999 Daytona 500 grabbed my attention. Maybe it was the leftover hype from the 1998 win for Dale Earnhardt. Maybe it’s because I had received and mastered NASCAR 99 for Nintendo 64 during the offseason. Maybe it was the way the local Orlando Sentinel went all out with its coverage of the race, including a full-page, colored rundown of the starting grid. Either way, I remember nervously pacing around my living room waiting for the start of coverage, like some expectant cartoon father-to-be in a waiting room.

Finally, it was noon. Greg Gumbel, the lead NFL play-by-play announcer, did most of the introduction and setup for the 41st Daytona 500 after a typical Daytona montage played over a dreamy, swampy slide guitar. His presence signaling a step up in the level of prestige in the event. One year after Dale Earnhardt’s win, the focus turned to the next in line to break into the Daytona 500 win column; drivers like Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, and that guy from that free card I got in 1996, Rusty Wallace.

It is Valentine’s Day and nearly 200,000 people are in attendance according to Gumbel—a crowd size three times larger than the Super Bowl, he points out.

The Early Departures

As the cars roll off the grid, we get treated to a full screen lineup run-down, announced row by row with near-equal attention to each driver. It is sorely missed. Then, we get the now jaw-dropping list of the sixteen drivers who did not make it into one of the 43 starting positions. It’s been a while since the number of drivers who didn’t make the race outnumber the car count of “the big one”. Among them are Jeff Green, David Green, Dick Trickle, Buckshot Jones, Morgan Shepherd, and Steve Grissom.

This year, two drivers had the potential to miss the race out of a field of 40. In 2015, the year before the charter system, 6 drivers failed to qualify and an additional team withdrew. After the charter system was in place, the number of qualifiers who failed to make the race were 4 in 2016, 2 in 2017, 0 in 2018.

The Broadcast

After Gumbel’s intro, we are quickly sent to pit road where drivers are heading to their cars and we get a few boilerplate statements from Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. I’ll combine them all to save space: “It’s been twelve months; it’s the great American race; it’s not the fastest car that has the advantage I think, it’s the best handling car; also, I have to make sure I don’t do anything stupid.”

Finally, we get a little time with Ken Squier. He quickly dives into a description 1979 Daytona 500, this being the 20th anniversary of the race that garnered so much attention for stock car racing in America.

Then, Squier breaks out that line or rather notion of “a common guy doing uncommon deeds”. That idea that any of us could break through with a little practice, a little luck, a little talent. It’s hard to find much of that sentiment in 2019.

The invocation, handled by the ecumenical Rev. Hal Marchman, a presence sorely missed over the last decade, ends with his signature “shalom and amen”. As the last syllable fades to a brief moment of silence, you can feel the gravity of the situation begin to simmer. Edwin McCain is introduced for what turns out to be a serviceable National Anthem. At last, we are thrown to the booth where Ned Jarrett, Mike Joy, Buddy Baker are waiting for the pace laps to start.

While the cars get up to temperature on this cool Daytona day, Baker reflects on winning Daytona 500 in third person, “the biggest day of Buddy Baker’s life”. The race starts out with a lengthy green flag run, the broadcast gets Buddy Baker personally involved as his record for fastest Daytona 500 appears to be in jeopardy. He earnestly brushes away the notion of resentment, asserting that he’d give up the record if it meant a safe race.

There is no denying the impact of having a Buddy Baker or Benny Parsons in the booth, they were gentle giants who married the inherent dangers of stock car racing with a light-hearted nature. At one point, Baker spots a wrapper stuck to the front of a car while viewing an on-board camera. To his delight, he exclaims: “Look at that sandwich wrapper up there on that hood pin, think it’s not getting a workout?”. To illustrate his point, he circles the wrapper using the teleprompter and we follow its journey around Daytona.

Mike Joy has essentially maintained the same father-knows-best tone over the last two decades, at one point stating, “That is one great thing about the heroes of NASCAR, none of them came out of high school to full scholarships, none of them came out of college to a million dollar signing bonus, every one of these drivers started out at a quarter mile track running Saturday nights somewhere”.

CBS would pull a 25-share for the 1999 Daytona 500 with 14.5 million viewers tuning in, making it the most-watched Daytona 500 of the 1990’s.

The Bit Players

Through much of the first three-quarters of the race, CBS takes the time to spotlight a few feelgood runs. Prior to Brett Favre waving the green flag, the booth gives a shout out to Dave Marcis who was making his 32nd consecutive Daytona 500 start, tying himself with Richard Petty for the most starts.

Early on, they show Rick Mast who was up to 12th; he would go on to run entire season without a DNF with Cale Yarborough Motorsports. They also show Jimmy Spencer unexpectedly running up near the lead draft; crew chief, Donnie Wingo, had said before the race that they changed everything they could on the car out of frustration.

We are informed that John Andretti is being pushed behind the wall with some sort of engine issue, as it happens in real-time. They get back to this story on lap 32, showing the car being pushed through the garage followed by an interview with Andretti on lap 34.

On lap 43, CBS shows an unscheduled pit stop for Ricky Craven, a rarity at any race for a team running mid-pack in 2019.

Derrike Cope is mentioned as having cut a right front tire and making an unscheduled pit stop.

After Mike Wallace pits for the first time, it is mentioned that Wallace replaced Mike Harmon mid-week in the Junie Donlavey #90 after the deal with Harmon’s sponsor Big Daddy’s BBQ completely disintegrated.

None of these storylines impact the battle for the lead or the top-10 but the intent is clear; these drivers have fans and these fans want to know what is happening to their driver. Somewhere in the last 20 years, that intent vanished.

The Culture

During the National Anthem, the broadcast shows Mark Martin, Dave Marcis and the rest of the field sitting in their cars, something we’ll won’t see again for a while. Honestly, it plays better to the enormity of the moment—one last solitary pause for reflection and peace.

In this super-charged political climate, it’s hard to imagine any Supreme Court justice being offered or agreeing to be grand marshal for stock car racing’s biggest event, but in 1999, associate Justice Clarence Thomas, donning a leather jacket, gives the command to start the engines.

The Commercials

The first commercial break of the race is on lap 11, returning to coverage on lap 14.

The second commercial break starts at lap 24, returning on lap 28.

The third commercial break lap starts at lap 35, returning on lap 38.

The fourth commercial break starts at lap 44, returning on lap 47. The pattern for commercials for first quarter of race is roughly 6-7 laps of coverage, 3-4 laps of commercials.

The fifth commercial break comes at Lap 60, returning from break on lap 64, almost 22 laps without a break.

The sixth commercial break comes at lap 71, returning from break on lap 75. On lap 81, there is an in-race shoutout to the Budweiser lizards, Louie and Frank.

As we near halfway, we are swimming in “Jag” and “Touched by an Angel” rejoins.

The seventh commercial break comes just after the first caution on lap 96, coming back for the green flag on lap 100.

The eighth commercial break comes at lap 112, returning from break at lap 114.

The ninth commercial break comes after the second caution at lap 123, returning to a green flag at lap 127. Coming back from commercial, we are treated to a promo for Cosby, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Becker, and LA Doctors. Mike Joy half-chuckles his way through the sitcom plot explanation, “Raymond goes on a Caribbean cruise with his mother”.

The tenth commercial break comes at Lap 131, back from the break on lap 134 just before the big crash.

The eleventh commercial break comes at lap 140, returning to go back green at lap 142.

The twelfth commercial break comes at lap 150, returning to broad cast on lap 153.

The thirteenth commercial break comes at lap 161, returning to broad cast on lap 164.

The fourteenth commercial break comes at lap 170, returning just before Bobby Hamilton crashes on lap 173.

The fifteenth commercial break comes during the caution for Hamilton on lap 175, returning on lap 177.

In all, 45 laps, almost a quarter of the race, mostly under green flag conditions were missed for commercials.

The Race

It only takes one lap before the first glaring difference in officiating rears its head. After leading the first lap, Jeff Gordon is unable to fend off a charging Bobby Labonte who ducks below the yellow line on the backstretch. This will happen all race long; in fact, the winning pass of the race in 188 laps will occur in just this fashion. No black flags, no controversy, just a narrowly avoided, potentially dangerous collision.

It’s easy for me to forget that for a brief moment in time, a young Tony Stewart raced against Dale Earnhardt. The start of Stewart’s first Daytona 500 found him running with Earnhardt until an ill-fated pass attempt up high leaves him shoved into the middle lane on lap 4.

Bobby Labonte, running a car from 1998, continues to lead the early laps, despite a strong move by Earnhardt to nearly draw-even with the #18 on lap 8. This is the closest Earnhardt would be to the lead for much of race; he would not lead a lap in the 1999 Daytona 500.

As the race settles into an apparent long green-flag run, Dick Berggren reports on the somber tone of the driver’s meeting due to crash-marred nature of the previous day’s Busch Grand National series race. The NAPA Auto Parts 300 featured 6 cautions, including the infamous Casey Atwood blowover. In total, 15 cars were caught up in crashes.

At this point, the race is almost 48 laps in and there have been no major pit stops. I forgot how long 22 gallons of fuel lasted on these plate tracks.

Jeff Burton is the first driver to have his pit stop shown in full, a mediocre 24.5 second stop. Dave Marcis, Bill Elliott, Jerry Nadeau and Johnny Benson are all shown pitting. After watching six years of mid-pack racing, I feel confident in saying that it’s rare for coverage to be this widespread anymore. Tony Stewart’s new team then make their first ever pit stop, called “remarkably good” after clocking in at 19.1 seconds.

I had completely wiped catch cans and fuel being carelessly splashed about from my memory. Dangerous nostalgia is the best nostalgia. The blend from pit road is also insane, commonly two-wide off of pit road all the way to turn one.

Rusty Wallace assumes the lead after pit stops on lap 58, a lead he will hold for the next 64 laps, much to my teenage surprise. As he leads into the second half of the race, much will be made about his prior flips at plate tracks and his potentially gun-shy nature at these tracks.

Kenny Wallace falls off the pace on lap 93 with no oil pressure bringing out the first caution of the Daytona 500. Up until now, I had forgotten that the field used to race back to the caution flag.

The field pits and the hood goes up on Bobby Labonte’s car as he has developed a skip in the engine; the crew tries changing a plug wire. After going back green, Tony Stewart would also develop a skip in his engine. He will eventually go behind the wall. Dale Jarrett has a reported hole in fender of car, but Todd Parrott opts to leave it alone.

The second caution comes out for Jimmy Spencer who slammed the wall out of turn 2 on lap 122.

Shortly after going back green, on lap 135, Kenny Irwin upsets the back of his teammate Jarrett going into turn three, sparking the biggest crash of the race. Geoff Bodine, Steve Park, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek, Terry Labonte, Rich Bickle, Jeff Burton, Ward Burton, Robert Pressley, and Ricky Rudd Rudd are all swept up in a grinding, painful-sounding crash. After the incident, Bickle and Park confer about the crash while waiting for rides to care center, as do Jarrett and Labonte. Twelve cars in total were involved and are currently off-track.

Replays conclude Jarrett was turned by air from of nose of Irwin’s car; Robert Yates has no comment back in garage.

When we return from commercial on lap 164, we find that Jeff Gordon has now taken over 2nd place behind Wallace. Barring a caution, crew chiefs Robin Pemberton and Ray Evernham will go for it to the end on fuel.

Approaching 30 laps to go, the booth is starting to build up towards a Rusty Wallace victory; he has been dominant for much of the race and, as Wallace told Baker before the race started, “It’s Valentine’s Day”.

After the caution comes out on lap 175 for Bobby Hamilton who turned sideways by himself on the backstretch, Rusty and teammate Jeremy Mayfield decide not to pit. Rusty’s crew chief Robin Pemberton is interviewed regarding the decision and declares they were just as likely to make a mistake pitting before conceding that he may be a sitting duck.

On lap 184 after the field goes back green, the term “bump-drafting” is used for first time on broadcast. With 15 laps left, Rusty leads Earnhardt and Gordon. Gordon dispatches Earnhardt off of turn two and sets his sights on the #2 car.

One of the most crucial sequences of the race happens next, before the actual change for the lead. Chad Little gets into Mike Skinner in what could have been a massive wreck. Skinner somehow saves it and continues on just in front of his teammate Earnhardt without losing hardly any momentum. This momentarily allows Rusty and Gordon to pull out ahead on the backstretch. Through turns three and four, Gordon rolls back to Skinner, leaving Rusty with a 3 car-length lead. That gap spelled the end for Rusty as Gordon is able to charge with a head of steam through the tri-oval. Heading out of the tri-oval, Gordon ducks below the white line and squeezes alongside Rusty just in time to avoid clipping the wounded Ricky Rudd’s machine on the apron. After a lap of three-wide racing for the lead, Rusty fades into the middle and Gordon is left to battle Skinner. Looking at the rest of the top-5 is a little eerie as you see Michael Waltrip working with Earnhardt while Ken Schrader runs in the high line.

Richard Childress is interviewed after Earnhardt pushes Gordon into the lead saying, “You know Dale, he’s got some moves on him left”. Terry Labonte will learn that later on in 1999.

After a strong, final charge from Earnhardt, Gordon captures the 1999 Daytona 500. Only 15 cars finished on the lead lap. There were 14 lead changes and only 4 cautions. Rusty Wallace finished 8th after leading 104 laps. Dale Earnhardt finishes second, offering a simple: “Got beat!”, when asked what happened at the end of the race.

Impact Statement

I was devastated. I had emotionally invested myself in this event, and it was a bitter pill to swallow for the driver I had arbitrarily started cheering for to lose in such a fashion. I was also hooked. Soon, I would be going to the mall for a Rusty Wallace hat, scouring Targets and K-marts for 1:64 diecasts, and watching every race of the 1999 season. The long green-runs and the big crash don’t stand out in my mind twenty years later. All I remember is that feeling of disappointment, of having something so precious slip through your fingers. I also couldn’t wait for Rockingham, a track I had mastered on Nascar 99 early on; I doubt I focused much at school that week. There was the hope that the next week’s event would work out, and if not next week, the week after, it was a long season, after all.

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