Countdown to Daytona: Jeff Gordon edged Earnhardt for first 500 victory

With 39 days to go before the green flag waves for the 2017 Daytona 500 live on FOX, we look back on Jeff Gordon’s first triumph in the Great American Race.

It came in 1997, in the 39th running of NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

At the time, Gordon was the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history at age 25. It was a record that stood until Trevor Bayne won the 2011 race at 20 years old.

But in ’97, it was Gordon’s time.

Now a FOX Sports NASCAR analyst, Gordon was at the front of a 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports – with Terry Labonte, defending Cup Series champion at the time, coming home in second and Ricky Craven finishing third.

The way Gordon won in his No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet was memorable, to say the least.

With 12 laps to go, after having worked his way up to the front from the middle of the pack, Gordon was running side-by-side with Dale Earnhardt behind the leader, Bill Elliott. As they all came tearing out of Turn 2, Gordon made a quick move to pass to the inside.

Earnhardt’s No. 3 Richard Childress Chevy suddenly shot into the outside wall and bounced briefly into Gordon’s car. Then Earnhardt made contact with Dale Jarrett’s No. 88 car, flipping Earnhardt into the air and barrel-rolling over the No. 28 driven by Ernie Irvan. He tore of Irvan’s hood in the process, sending it into the grandstands where it injured a few spectators.

Earnhardt’s promising day was instantly ruined.

Gordon, who suddenly was in position to win, denied he was responsible even years later.

“It was an intense battle,” Gordon recalled recently in his book with Joe Garner entitled Jeff Gordon: His Dream, Drive & Destiny. “I got aggressive on his bumper, and he washed up the racetrack. As I got underneath him, he went wide, hit the wall, and he bounced off the wall into me.

“Jarrett made contact with him and turned him upside down. I actually never touched him until after he hit the wall and bounced into me.”

The incident left Gordon in second and allowed Gordon’s teammates, Labonte and Craven, to move into position to help push him from behind.

With six laps left, Gordon dove low to pass Elliott for the lead as Labonte and Craven went high to move into second and third, respectively. A wreck shortly thereafter brought out the caution flag and, in those days, effectively ended the race with Gordon the winner.

Gordon related in his book that he had promised his car owner, Rick Hendrick, that he would win the race. Hendrick was battling leukemia at the time and was unable to attend the 500.

From Victory Lane, Gordon called Hendrick on a cell phone and exclaimed: “Did I tell you we were going to do it or what? I told you, man.”

As for the No. 39 on a car in NASCAR’s top series, it has had very limited success over the years. In fact, it has been to Victory Lane just four times – all with Ryan Newman as its driver while he made 180 career starts for Stewart-Haas Racing. The only other driver to make more than 100 starts in the No. 39 was the not-so-legendary Friday Hassler, who made 126 without a victory while running in NASCAR’s top series from 1960-72. From there, the next-highest number of starts in the 39 were registered by Blackie Wangerin, who made only 26.

Newman’s last win in the car number came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013.