By , Jay Pennell
Published May 03, 2016
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. 4: 1997 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway
By the 1997 season, 25-year-old Jeff Gordon had already made a big impact by winning 19 races, the 1995 Sprint Cup championship and finishing second to teammate Terry Labonte in the 1996 title fight.
But as the 1997 season came around, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports team was facing a number of off-track distractions.
In December 1996, team owner Rick Hendrick was indicted on federal charges that included mail fraud and money laundering. Then, just as the NASCAR season was set to kick off, Hendrick was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of bone-marrow cancer known as chronic myelogenous leukemia, forcing him to miss the Daytona Speedweeks.
The three-car team also introduced rookie Ricky Craven to the organization, replacing Ken Schrader in the No. 25 Chevrolet. Craven's Daytona Speedweeks got off to a rocky start with a wreck in his qualifying race that forced him to start the Daytona 500 in the 40th spot.
Facing a litany of unknowns, Hendrick Motorsports opened the season with a 1-2-3 finish as Gordon earned the first of his three wins in "The Great American Race."
Starting sixth, Gordon wasted no time making dicey moves in the opening laps of the race to put his No. 24 Chevrolet in contention for the lead, battling with Dale Earnhardt, Mike Skinner, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott among others.
Early on, Labonte survived a scare when he made contact with Robert Pressley, sending Pressley's car sliding and pirouetting through the air on the backstretch to bring out the first caution of the day.
Taking advantage of hard racing in the pack, Gordon was able to move behind Earnhardt for second as the race neared the 50-lap mark.
After the second caution of the day, Gordon took the lead for the first time, moving under Ernie Irvan. Once out front, the driver of the rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevrolet led the next 34 laps before the Mark Martin, Irvan, Elliott and Sterling Marlin moved ahead.
Racing in the thick of the lead pack, Gordon was forced to pit road under green on Lap 111 because of a flat right-side tire. The team reported neither right-side tire was flat, but discovered one of the tires had a small cut after running over a piece of debris.
At the tail end of the lead lap, Gordon was able to stay in front of the race leader Martin and the rest of the field. Gordon caught a break when Jeff Burton and Greg Sacks wrecked on the backstretch on Lap 122. Beating Martin to the caution flag, Gordon was able to remain on the lead lap and catch up to the rear of the field.
Restarting near the back of the lead group, Gordon wasted no time working his way through the field. While Gordon was fighting his way back to the front, teammates Labonte and Craven were busy jockeying for position in the lead group.
Running outside of the lead group, Gordon caught a break when a caution for debris flew on Lap 167 of 200, allowing him to restart ninth.
After racing back to the front of the field, Gordon got a great run on Earnhardt off Turn 2 for the second spot, and made a move to the bottom with 10 laps to go.
The move caused Earnhardt to slide up the track and make contact with the outside wall. While Gordon was able to slip by unscathed, Earnhardt's bump against the wall resulted in Jarrett getting into the back of the No. 3 Chevrolet, which immediately went airborne and hit the wall before landing on all four wheels. The incident collected Irvan, sending the No. 28 Ford's hood flying into the grandstands, and brought out the seventh caution of the day. Earnhardt famously climbed back into his badly damaged car and finished the race.
Restarting with six laps to go, the three Hendrick teammates were lined up second, third and fourth, respectively, behind Elliott, with Gordon leading the trio. With five laps to go, Gordon made a bold move down on the apron under Elliott heading into Turn 1 as Labonte and Craven went to the high side to pass the No. 94 Ford.
Gordon was able to emerge with the lead as his teammates fought to keep Marlin, Elliott and the rest of the field at bay over the closing laps. When a 12-car wreck slowed the field with three laps to go, the three Hendrick cars took the caution flag in the first three spots.
With NASCAR unable to restart the race without the race going beyond its advertised distance (this was before the days of green-white-checkered finishes), Gordon led a 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon's first win in the Daytona 500 kicked off a championship season that would include 10 victories. It was the first time the Daytona 500 finished with drivers from the same team running first, second and third.
The 1-2-3 finish was extra special for the Hendrick organization, with team owner Rick Hendrick unable to attend.
After pulling into Victory Lane, Gordon was handed a cell phone with Hendrick on the other end.
"Did I tell you we were going to do it or what?" Gordon asked Hendrick on the phone. "I told you, man. Hey, man, I've got to go talk to the world here. Thank you so much. We love you and this one's for you, man."
Climbing from the car, Gordon threw his hands in the air and banged on the hood of the No. 24 car in celebration as the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 at that point.
"This one's for Rick Hendrick," Gordon told reporter Mike Joy. "One, two, three. That is so awesome."