Sure, Dale Jarrett could slip back to the rest of the pack someday. It might not be this year, though. And it certainly wasn't going to start Saturday night.
The Winston Cup points leader started the second half of the season with a victory in the Pepsi 400 over Dale Earnhardt that was ensured after an accident brought out the yellow flag with two laps remaining.
Just moments after he drove his red, white and blue Ford across the finish line, an Independence Day fireworks show began. Then Jarrett basked in the glow of the fact that, since 1993, no driver leading the points race after the Pepsi 400 has failed to win the title.
He left Daytona International Speedway with a much better feeling than the last time. During the Daytona 500 in February, Jarrett exited his car dazed and upset, suspected as the culprit in a multicar wreck that knocked him and several contenders out of the hunt.
It was the only sour note of his season he hasn't finished worse than 11th since and Jarrett made amends for it in style, widening the 157-point lead he carried into the second half of the season as he seeks his first series title.
Jarrett took the lead after making a hurried pit stop on the 144th lap that left him with just enough fuel to complete the race. So slim was his margin that Jarrett's car stalled after he crossed the finish line, forcing his pit crew to come onto the track and push him to victory lane.
"I ran out right after we crossed the finish line," Jarrett said. "We made it, but we cut it awful close there."
After his pit stop, Jarrett opened a lead of nearly eight car-lengths over Rusty Wallace and seemed poised to cruise to an easy victory.
But two laps later, a yellow flag came out when a catch can, used to catch overflow gasoline during pit stops, flew off of Kenny Irwin's car and onto the track.
The green came out again and the bunched group of cars began a 10-lap dash that stopped two laps short when Jeremy Mayfield, Wally Dallenbach and Jimmy Spencer were involved in a crash coming off the fourth turn on lap 157.
Jarrett had Earnhardt on his tail when the yellow came out, but The Intimidator was unable to make a good attempt at a pass as they headed toward the finish line.
They completed the last two laps under a yellow flag, with Earnhardt rubbing his car up against Jarrett's in a congratulatory bump just before the checkered flag.
It was Jarrett's third victory at stock car racing's most famous track, but his first in the summer event.
"This race has been a favorite of mine for many years," Jarrett said. "To finally be here on victory lane on July 4 weekend is fantastic. It's a weekend America celebrates and we're going to celebrate with them."
Two-time defending series champion Jeff Gordon raced in the top 10 most of the evening but never got in position to win his third straight Daytona race.
Wallacsuffered yet another hard-luck effort at Daytona, leading the majority of the race but falling back after the final yellow flag.
Surprise pole sitter Joe Nemechek was little factor, leading in the early going but falling back and never making a run. The same went for Ricky Rudd, who couldn't capitalize on the outside pole position.
Earnhardt came in second for the second time this year at Daytona, but his restrictor-plate program remains solid. The two seconds go with a victory at Talladega in April.
Jeff Burton finished third, his ninth top-five finish of the season.
A holiday crowd estimated at 175,000 saw a race that featured 17 lead changes and ran at a fast average of 169.213 mph. There were only three cautions, the first coming on lap 89 when a brief shower hit on the backstretch of the 2.5-mile trioval.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.