By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The 1998 Pepsi 400 was scheduled to be a monumental mark for NASCAR’s crown jewel track, Daytona International Speedway, as the track’s July 4th weekend race would be run under the lights for the very first time.
However, a devastating wildfire that had swept through Central Florida around that weekend, destroying 126 homes and charring 500,000 acres, forced the race to be postponed to mid-October, making it one of the final races of the season.
In addition to the race being run under the lights for the first time, the new placement on the schedule for the race also meant that two restrictor plate races would run back to back as the Cup Series had run at Talladega a week prior. Once the new October race weekend came, all 143,000 fans that had made the race a sell-out back in in March showed up in full force, ready to see racing under the lights at the 2.5 mile track.
Bobby Labonte would start the race on the pole, his third restrictor plate pole of the year, with Jeff Burton starting alongside on the front row.
Dale Jarrett, who started third and had won the previous week at Talladega, would lead the first lap of the race before restrictor plate master Dale Earnhardt took over at lap two, a place he knew well at Daytona.
Weather would be a concern throughout the evening and the first of three rain delays that would come that night came at lap 13 with Earnhardt still in command of the race.
Earnhardt would lead until lap 32 when the first multi-car crash of the night broke out off of Turn 2 and down the backstretch, involving 11 cars when all was said and done.
Once the race went back green after the clean up from the crash, the lead would jump between eight different drivers over the next 75 laps, with Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dave Marvis, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Jimmy Spencer, and Jeremy Mayfield all getting a chance to be at the top of the board. Jatrrett would lead the most laps of the crowd with 37 circuits up from.
As Gordon led at lap 107, the third caution of the day flew for a one car accident in Turn 2 involving Dan Pardus and a new contender emerged in Kenny Irwin, Jr. as he took over the lead under caution and would not relinquish it for 15 laps.
Though Irwin held strong in the lead, Gordon, who had won a staggering 10 races heading into Daytona and led the points, was just too much for Irwin’s Ford and retook the lead at lap 123.
Just two laps later, the field would face its second rain delay of the night as the race was delayed for four laps as another rain shower passed over the track.
Irwin’s day would get worse at lap 142 after Irwin tried to move up in front of Chad Little on the backstretch before he was completely clear, causing Little to hook him into the outside wall and set off the second multi-car crash of the night. In total, nine cars were involved including Irwin, Little, Jimmy Spencer, Steve Park, Jerry Nadeau, Ricky Rudd, Andy Hillenburg, Brett Bodine, and John Andretti.
Gordon continued to lead after the race went back to green when the crash was cleaned up, but with just five laps to go, the third and final rain delay of the race came, setting up a three lap dash for the finish.
The No. 24 Chevrolet stayed out in front for the first two laps after the restart, but with help from older brother Terry, Bobby Labonte was making a charge for the lead on the last lap. Bobby would make a three wide pass heading into Turn 3 to move up to second, but ran out of time to get past Gordon, who notched his 11th win of the season and third win at Daytona.
Following Gordon and Bobby Labonte to the line was Mike Skinner, Jeremy Mayfield, and Rusty Wallace. The other two drivers that led the most laps after Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett, would finish the race in 10th and 23rd, respectively. Earnhardt had hit a tire on pit road earlier in the race, causing some damage to the front end of his car, while Jarrett cut a tire down late in the race, dropping him a lap down at the finish.
“Usually when they get side by side, somebody breaks away and comes after you and Bobby almost did that,” said Gordon. “I’ve just got to say thank you to all of the guys in the engine shop, Charlie Seagers, Randy Dorton, all the guys that tune on it and back at Hendrick engines. These last two weeks have been the best restrictor plate engines I’ve ever had. This DuPont Chevrolet has just been awesome. I want to thank God, he certainly directed me and guided me all through traffic today and on that last restart, I’m sure he was riding with me.”
“It was just a phenomenal effort by everybody this weekend. My hat’s off to Ray Evernham. He just tuned the car perfect. I mean, this thing handled like a dream. Great pit stops by the Rainbow Warriors and I want to thank DuPont Automotive Finishes, Quaker State, this is a Pepsi race, I want to thank them. It’s a big day for all of us and this Monte Carlo right here was awesome.”
Gordon held a commanding 358 point lead over Mark Martin in the season standings leaving Daytona, meaning he only had to finish 37th or better in the last three races of the season to clinch the championship and he was able to do that easily, winning two of the last three races and scoring the third title of his career.
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