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News The Earnhardt Connection

Daytona fortunes reversed at Rockingham
Shawn A. Akers, NASCAR Online - '99 News

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (Feb. 22, 1999)
Following the Daytona 500, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt were the toast of the town following their classic battle in the final few laps of the "Great American Race."

On Sunday at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, the two were nowhere to be found at the drop of the checkered flag on the Dura-Lube/Big Kmart 400. That's just the way it is in NASCAR -- yesterday's heroes can be today's zeroes.

Gordon, the two-time defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion and Daytona 500 winner, blew an engine on lap 310 of Sunday's race, while running in the top-five. Gordon finished a disappointing 39th. It was the first time Gordon's DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet had experienced an engine failure since March 10, 1997 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"It was unfortunate," Gordon said. "We were running good and doing exactly what we wanted to do. We led at times. I think we were going to be a big factor at the end. These guys don't let me down very often, especially with the engine department. Today it just blew up and I lost oil pressure.

"It was frustrating because we had a good run, but at the same time, we've been very fortunate. These things are bound to happen eventually. I always knew they (his crew, the 'Rainbow Warriors') were human. Maybe everybody else didn't."

Gordon was looking for his fourth consecutive victory, dating back to Rockingham last fall. After Sunday's race, he fell out of the top-10 in the points. He's now 11th.

Earnhardt, who finished second in the Daytona 500, had problems of his own to deal with. On lap 279, he crashed into the wall, ending the day for the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet team, which finished 41st.

"I was off the gas pretty much and when I got in the corner the car just started to take off," Earnhardt said. "I thought I caught it, but it hit the loose stuff and I did hit the wall then. We popped the wall pretty hard and knocked the fuel pump and everything off of it.

"We were really off on the chassis. We were off after 15 or 20 laps. It wasn't handling all day long. We were handling a big push after about 30 laps. I was fighting it the whole time. We didn't have the combination today."

Earnhardt took a big hit in the point standings. He's now 17th, 105 points behind leader teammate Mike Skinner.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Geoffrey Bodine and Bobby Hamilton experienced a reversal of fortunes from Daytona -- but on the positive side. Martin, who finished 31st at Daytona, won the race at Rockingham; while Jarrett, who finished 37th at Daytona after getting involved in the same wreck as Martin, finished second.

Labonte improved from 25th at Daytona to third Sunday; Burton went from 35th to fourth; Bodine from 39th to eighth, and Hamilton 29th to ninth.

"We both (Labonte and Jarrett) needed that," Jarrett said. "I think we both felt at Daytona that we had cars that could have won the race getting in the right spot at the end, but Bobby had his problem and we had ours. This helps a lot.

"We talk about it being a long season and we have plenty of time to catch up, and we do, but you'd rather not use all that time if you don't have to. To me, this is a boost. If you can run well here, I think that says a lot for the rest of the races, especially with the tracks we've got coming up."

Labonte made a huge jump in the standings, and is now in fourth place. Jarrett jumped all the way to 13th place. Skinner, who finished sixth on Sunday, leads the standings by 29 points over Rusty Wallace.

"Look at the guys that finished first through fourth today," Labonte said. "We all had bad luck at Daytona. We're all pretty happy right now, I believe."

The celebration was short-lived for Bud Pole winner Ricky Rudd. The driver of the No. 10 Tide Taurus led the first three laps before quickly falling off the pace toward the back of the pack.

Rudd finished 30th, four laps down to Martin.

"Well, I knew in Happy Hour that it wasn't very good," Rudd said. We were pitiful as a matter of fact. I mean, we were off the pace a good bit. We never did get it settled. I don't know if the shocks bit us or what, but man, we just missed it."

There were six caution flags during the 393-lap event, but none until Ernie Irvan spun out in Turn 2 and collected Ted Musgrave on lap 210. There were 25 lead changes among six drivers. Burton led eight times for 227 laps, and Gordon led seven times for 90 laps.