Counting down Jeff Gordon's five best races; No. 3: 1997 Southern 500
Editor's note: As the final week of Jeff Gordon's NASCAR Sprint Cup career continues, FOXSports.com is counting down the four-time champion's top five Sprint Cup wins.
No. 3: 1997 Mountain Dew Southern 500
As the 1997 NASCAR Sprint Cup season reached the traditional Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Jeff Gordon had eight wins on the season but trailed Mark Martin by 13 points in the season standings.
However, the points lead was not the main area of concern for Gordon this day.
Of those eight wins earlier in the year, Gordon won the Daytona 500 to open the season and also took the checkered flag in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. After capturing two of the sport's four biggest races of the year, Gordon saw his chances at the Winston Million come down to a victory in NASCAR's oldest 500-mile event.
Introduced by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1985, the Winston Million paid a $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of the four crown-jewel races: the Daytona 500, The Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500.
At the time, Bill Elliott was the only driver to successfully win the Winston Million, earning him the nickname of "Million Dollar Bill" in 1985. Over the years, some of NASCAR's best drivers tried, but ultimately failed to accomplish the feat. Among them were Darrell Waltrip (1989), Dale Earnhardt (1990), Harry Gant (1991), Davey Allison (1992) and Dale Jarrett (1996).
Gordon had a chance at the million-dollar prize if he could win the Southern 500, one of the sport's most grueling events. He had a pretty good history at the track "Too Tough to Tame" going into the day, too.
Despite rough outings in four of his first five Darlington starts, Gordon had two consecutive Southern 500 wins, plus a victory in the 1996 400-mile event at the track.
Starting seventh in the 1997 Mountain Dew Southern 500, Gordon would have to deal with Elliott, Jarrett and a very fast Jeff Burton throughout the event.
The day got off to a strange start, as Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall on the opening lap of the race. Earnhardt struggled to bring the car to pit road after the early-race contact, and had to be pulled from the car by crew members. The team then carried the seven-time champion to the infield care center, placing an oxygen mask on his face.
Providing an update as the race continued, team owner Richard Childress said Earnhardt was groggy and seeing double, and had not felt well prior to the start of the race. Earnhardt was transported to a local hospital, while Childress' son-in-law, Mike Dillon, (Austin and Ty's dad) drove the No. 3 Chevrolet the remainder of the event.
While Gordon was focused on the million-dollar prize, Burton was focused on the win. Within the first 20 laps, the driver of the No. 99 Roush Racing Ford was inside the top 10 and still moving forward.
Just over 30 laps in the race, Gordon fought a loose handling condition and Burton's car continued to show speed as he raced his way past the No. 24 and bumped his way by Jarrett for the second spot, setting his sights on leader Elliott. Burton caught Elliott on Lap 45, taking the lead for the first time the next lap.
After the first round of green-flag stops, Gordon took command of the race. However, after a restart on Lap 114 of 367, Elliott's fast No. 94 Ford took the top spot as Gordon settled in to save his equipment for when it mattered most.
Battling the handling of the car for much of the race, Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham made multiple changes on the No. 24 Chevrolet to get it perfect for the end.
Gordon was able to take the lead from Jarrett on Lap 269, but the final 72 laps were no simple task. With Jarrett hot on his heels, Gordon also had to contend with Burton's lightening-quick No. 99 Ford. With five laps to go, Gordon held onto the lead, but both Jarrett and Burton were close on his bumper, looking for an opportunity to pounce.
Burton struggled to get by Jarrett, but did so with three laps to go and set his sights on Gordon. Closing the gap over the next three laps, Burton made a move under Gordon off Turn 4 coming to the white flag. Gordon countered the move and threw a block down the frontstretch, causing the two cars to make contact at the start-finish line.
Getting the advantage headed into the first corner, Gordon kept Burton at bay and held on to score the dramatic victory.
With the win, Gordon became just the second driver to collect the Winston Million and was the first driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive Southern 500s.
"This is unbelievable," Gordon said in Victory Lane. "I don't know what to say or what to do. We should not have won this race. I don't feel like we should have, but we found ourselves in great position, thanks to some great pit stops, to get out front. A lot of desire to win this thing. Not just because of the million dollars, but the third Southern 500 in a row is big."
Gordon took $100,000 of that million-dollar prize and donated it to bone-marrow cancer research, something close to the hearts of the Hendrick Motorsports organization.
The victory also put Gordon back atop the series standings and helped propel him toward his second championship.