After nearly 400 miles of racing at Daytona International Speedway tonight, an errant gas can totally changed the complexion -- and nearly changed the outcome -- of NASCAR's Pepsi 400.
But luck and a great race car were on Dale Jarrett's side. And with just a trickle of gas left in his tank, he limped across the finish under caution to claim the victory after fending off a charge from the track's master, Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt had stalked Jarrett much of the race and mounted his final assault with 10 laps to go, propelled by new right-side tires. In just six laps, he charged from eighth to second, stirring up memories of the 1993 Daytona 500, in which Jarrett edged him for the win.
But with two laps to go and Earnhardt gaining steam as Jarrett's gas supply dwindled, a three-car crash brought out a final caution flag that sealed the win for Jarrett, because no passing is allowed under caution. Taking no chances, Jarrett dropped to the track's flat apron for the final circuits around the 2.5-mile superspeedway, which ensured his engine would get every last drop of gas in the tank. He ended up needing a push to Victory Lane.
"They said they were going to give me four seconds of fuel [on the last pit stop]," Jarrett said afterward, "and there's no way I stopped for four seconds! But my hat's off to [crew chief] Todd Parrott. We had a great, great race car."
Jeff Burton finished third, followed by Mike Skinner and Bobby Labonte.
Jarrett seemed to have the victory in hand with 14 laps to go. He was roaring away from the pack when a caution flag flew, nullifying his lead. The caution was brought out so track workers could pick up a gas can that had rolled away from the car of Kenny Irwin, Jarrett's teammate, on the previous pit stop.
Despite grave doubts about his gas supply, Jarrett floored it on the restart. Had the race lasted another lap or two, Earnhardt felt sure he would have passed him for the win.
"We just ran out of time," said Earnhardt, who has six second-place finishes at the track in Winston Cup points races. "Another second place at Daytona. Something I need."
Tonight's Pepsi 400 was the first auto race broadcast before a prime-time audience on a major network (CBS), made possible by the installation of the world's largest lighting system. At a cost of roughly $5 million, it throws as much light on the track as the high-beam headlights of 87,000 passenger cars.
During the pre-race drivers' meeting, the racers had been urged to use their heads and be patient on the track. Racing at Daytona is treacherous because of the high speeds, nearing 200 mph in spots, and because of the close competition.
Despite the pleas, the more aggressive drivers wasted no time diving into the fray, with Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon making it three- and four-wide as they jockeyed for position.
The lead changed hands often, and it quickly became clear who had the best cars: Wallace, who led the most laps (75 of 160) but finished 11th; Earnhardt; Jarrett and Bobby Labonte.
Mark Martin had qualified third in a blistering-fast Ford, but he totaled it during Friday night's final practice when a flat tire sent him hard into the Turn 4 wall. The impact broke Martin's left wrist, bruised his ribs and left him limping. It also cost him his second-row starting spot; under NASCAR rules, he had to start dead last, 43rd, after switching to a backup car. Driving one-handed, Martin radioed that his wrist was hurting by the midpoint of the race. So his team handed him a pair of scissors during a pit stop in case he wanted to cut off his cast. Martin's 17th-place finish enabled him to keep his spot in the season's points race, third, behind Jarrett and Labonte. "He's pretty tough," said Martin's crew chief, Jimmy Fennig.
Jarrett also ran into misfortune in Friday's practice, running over a turtle on the backstretch. The collision cost him precious practice laps as his team hammered out the damage.
But his Ford was sleek and fast by race time tonight, taking the lead on Lap 42. "It would start off really good on new tires," Jarrett said, "and then it would kind of go away from me a little bit. I was just kind of riding then, just sitting there biding my time, waiting for the right opportunity, and things came along and went our way."
Meanwhile, Gordon, who started 11th, drifted back on a bad set of tires. He finished 24th.
The front-runners stayed bunched up, with Wallace, Earnhardt, Jarrett and Labonte swapping the lead through a first half that was fast and caution-free.
The first caution came out on Lap 84 for rain. Daytona is so big that rain fell in Turn 3 while the other corners stayed dry as a bone. The entire field used the lull to duck into the pits for new tires and gasoline. Earnhardt beat Wallace out of the pits to retake the lead and used the next 40 laps to feel out his car, running on the high side, ducking down low to find out where it was strongest as he plotted his late-race strategy.
Skinner took control on Lap 99 with a daring move on the backstretch. As Wallace and Jarrett dueled for the lead, Skinner dove between them and, with a nudge from Ward Burton, squirted through to take the lead. He held it for just seven laps, though, and afterward mulled the difficulty of finding a drafting partner at Daytona.
"It's a total different style," Skinner said. "You're supposed to [draft] with this guy, and when this guy catches you, you're supposed to pull over and play dead. When it gets there in the end, there ain't no playing dead. You don't have a teammate. You don't have anybody."
CAPTION: Dale Jarrett celebrates Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway. "We had a great, great race car," he said.