DAYTONA BEACH, FLA., FEB. 17 -- All week long, race fans figured the 33rd running of the Daytona 500 today would come down to Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison running door-to-door for the checkered flag.

They were door-to-door all right, running 200 mph with three laps to go and only little-known Swervin' Ernie Irvan between them and the $200,000-plus winner's purse, when suddenly the improbable happened.

"I was looking at them in the mirror," said Irvan, the eventual winner. "I knew we were close {to the finish} and I thought, 'Any time now they'll get single-file and run me down.'

"But then Earnhardt got sideways, which just doesn't happen, and I guess he touched Davey and then it was all smoke back there and I got on it."

For the second straight year, NASCAR's biggest money-winner had spun himself out of contention for stock car racing's grand prize, the one big race he's never won. And along the way this year, Earnhardt took out pole-sitter Allison and strong-running Kyle Petty.

"I lost control and spun, and I spun right into Davey," said Earnhardt, who already had won three races in his jet-black Chevrolet in Speed Week events leading up to the 500.

"We were going for the Daytona 500 and I wasn't leading, so we were goin' for the front."

The upshot was the first Winston Cup superspeedway win in 64 tries for Irvan, 32, and only his second victory in a NASCAR event of any description.

He barely made it to the finish in his yellow Chevrolet, however, as the field circled the 2 1/2-mile oval the final two laps under yellow caution flag while crews cleaned up the wreckage of the Earnhardt-Allison crash on the backstretch.

"When I saw the white flag {signifying the last lap}, my car started sputtering and spitting," Irvan said. "I said, 'This can't be happening. I'm running out of gas.'

"I had to go down on the apron {to keep the car and its fuel tank level}, but I figured I'd get to the finish then, even if I had to run past the pace car to do it."

Irvan thrust a fist out the driver's window when he took the checkered flag for a $233,000 payoff. Veteran Sterling Marlin was second, Joe Ruttman third.

Earnhardt, who managed to regain control of his car after the devastating spin on the backstretch, limped home fifth.

That's exactly where he wound up last year, after leading 155 laps of the 200-lap race. He was in the lead and going for the flag on the final lap then when he cut a tire on debris and spun out.

Earnhardt, who said last year he'd have given $1 million to rerun that final lap, was more sanguine about his troubles this year. "We won the {overall Winston Cup} championship without winning here last year," he said. "So we'll just go on and try again."

But Allison was furious. "I got hit; I got hit," he said over and over, barely controlling his anger. Allison was convinced his Ford was the fastest car coming into this race, and backed it up by setting the top lap time of 195.955 mph in qualifying.

"I'm not happy," he said. "I had a shot to win the race. I saw a clean pass on the outside, then a hard hit in the left quarterpanel put me in the outside wall. That's what I felt.

"If we ever could have got around Dale today without the incident, I think we could have got past Ernie. My car was just super strong."

However sudden and unexpected the outcome, it climaxed a spirited run for the glory before 145,000 sunsplashed fans on a picture-perfect day.

The 500 was run under new pit-stop rules that spread out the field and separated the leaders from each other for much of the day.

Drivers were barred from changing tires during caution laps this year for safety reasons. Under the old rules, everyone took a pit stop under the yellow caution flag to change tires, which bunched up the leaders for close-quarter racing each time the flag flew.

But the ninth yellow flag of the day bunched the top racers in close proximity today anyway, with just eight laps to go. Earnhardt quickly blasted out to a five-length lead after the green flag dropped.

But Irvan, who said his car was handling better than Earnhardt's, passed down low with six laps to go, putting Allison and Earnhardt side by side behind him.

Neither gave an inch for three laps as they raced around the course in excess of 190 mph, rubbing side panels at least three or four times while jockeying for position.

Then, on the backstretch, the rear end of Earnhardt's car lifted off the pavement in a gust of air; his right rear fender swung into Allison's Ford, sending it spinning. Petty was caught up in the melee and it was all noise, smoke and flying sheet metal after that.

"The wind got off {Earnhardt's} spoiler," said Marlin, who was tucked in close behind at the time, "and he went sideways. We got lucky and got through. I hit a piece of tailpipe or something, but by then there was no laps left."

Irvan's winning run averaged 148.148 mph as the field of 42 cars ran 87 1/2 miles under the nine caution flags. The fastest lap was turned by Earnhardt, who averaged 194.217 mph on Lap 7. There were a half-dozen spectacular wrecks, most right in front of the grandstand, but no one was seriously injured.

Irvan said he was unsurprised by his success. "I told 'em I could win it," he said. "Maybe now they'll listen to me."

When he passed Earnhardt with six laps to go, he said it was clear Earnhardt's car was not handling perfectly. "He had to lift {his foot off the accelerator} in the turns," said Irvan, who moved from Modesto, Calif., to North Carolina in 1984.

He added that the Allison-Earnhardt duo probably could have caught him if they'd gone single file, but that would have meant one of them giving way to the other, which wasn't likely to happen.

"They were trying to do the same thing I was," he said. "Win Daytona."

Asked if victory here might help him shed his "Swervin' Irvan" nickname, the winner said he hoped not.

"The only other nickname I ever had," he said, "was Bonehead."