Big Win, Mass Confusion
Dale Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing, Interstate Batteries Win Together, Celebrate Separately
The story of Dale Jarrett’s historic victory in the 35th Daytona 500 has been told many times throughout the last two decades. The legendary Dale Earnhardt led 107 of 200 laps on Feb. 14, 1993, but he was passed by Jarrett’s No. 18 Interstate Batteries car on the last lap while Jarrett’s father, Ned, excitedly called the action during the live CBS broadcast.
The “Dale and Dale Show,” as referred to by Ned Jarrett on the telecast, is still considered by many to be one of the best races in NASCAR history.
Perhaps lesser known, and somewhat humorous, is the mass confusion that took place following the checkered flag. Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), which fielded the Interstate Batteries car for Jarrett, had only competed in NASCAR for one year and had yet to find victory lane, while Jarrett had scored only one victory in his career in August 1991 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
So after Jarrett took the checkered flag, a large yet slightly unorganized celebration took place.
“We were so naive, we didn’t know what to do after the race, nor did Joe (Gibbs),” said Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries. “I think we barley remembered to get photos taken in victory lane. It was only our second Daytona 500 and we won the thing. It was amazing.”
Gibbs, who 18 months earlier had sold Miller on sponsoring his team despite not having a race shop, a driver or any racing experience, couldn’t believe his team had won the biggest NASCAR event of the season.
“When we crossed the finish line, reality kind of set in,” Gibbs said. “Norm was obviously excited. We were all very emotional. Pat (Gibbs, wife) was there, she was a crying. I remember when we were heading for the winner’s circle, J.D. (Gibbs, son), Coy (Gibbs, son) and Todd (Meredith, crew member, now vice president of operations) were all kind of wrestling in the infield. It was just a great thrill for us.”
“I would say it was one of the more interesting victory lane celebrations,” Jarrett said. “Even though I had won at Michigan in the Cup Series, this (Daytona 500) was the biggest race and we were all kind of looking around, going, ‘Did this really happen? What do we do now?’ I think we were all kind of looking for some help. I remember looking at Joe and his family and Norm was there and we were all kind of looking at each other wondering what we were supposed to be doing. There was just a lot of laughing and hugging and even a few tears, I think.”
While the team had prepared a perfect car, they weren’t exactly perfect party planners in 1993. In an age before cell phones, the group that had accomplished the near impossible conducted three different celebrations in three different locations – due to the fact they had been separated during the wild post-race activity and couldn’t get in contact with each other.
“I ended up with some family and other Interstate Batteries people back at the condo (in Daytona Beach) eating pizza,” Miller said. “I think Joe ended up at Steak ‘n Shake, or something like that.”
Gibbs did indeed end up at the Steak ‘n Shake on International Speedway Boulevard.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Gibbs said. “What was really funny was, afterward, we all got separated, and myself, Pat, J.D. and Coy ended up with the trophy at a Steak ‘n Shake down the road. A bunch of fans were there and we were out in the parking lot taking pictures with the trophy. And I think a few of the fans had a little bit to drink.”
While Miller was munching on pizza, and the Gibbs family was celebrating with hamburgers and some rather happy fans in the Steak ‘n Shake parking lot, Jarrett and crew chief Jimmy Makar, who had figured out a way to defeat the legendary Earnhardt, couldn’t solve the mystery of where their sponsor or car owner had gone.
“Dale, Kelley (Jarrett, wife), Patti (Makar, wife) and I got together after the race,” Makar said. “We’re looking at each other, asking, ‘Where did everybody go? We just won the Daytona 500. Where is everybody?’ So, we went back to the hotel and, since we couldn’t find anybody, we decided to go to dinner and celebrate, ourselves. So we went to Porto Fino.”
The Italian restaurant, which is still open on South Atlantic Avenue in Daytona, was a favorite of Makar’s.
“We didn’t know were anybody was,” Jarrett said. “But the one thing I knew was that Porto Fino was one of Jimmy Makar’s favorite places to eat. I felt that I owed Jimmy Makar everything at that moment, so that’s where we went. It was a tremendous evening and was a great celebration, and the only way it could’ve been better was if we were all there together. The next two times I won the Daytona 500 (1996 and 2000), I went back to Porto Fino for the celebration and each time I thought about Jimmy Makar and that first Daytona victory.”
While the celebration may have been a bit shaky, Joe Gibbs Racing was now rock solid. By winning the biggest race in NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing was legitimized – and Norm Miller looked like a genius for taking a chance on an unproven organization.
“After that first year (1992), we went into the second year with that normal apprehension of, ‘Do we belong here? Can we do this? Can we be a part of one of the greatest sports in America?'” Gibbs said. “When we won that race, I think it put a stamp on the fact that we belonged and that we were here to stay. And it also put a stamp on the relationship between Joe Gibbs Racing and Interstate Batteries and all their dealers and distributors. It was a huge victory for us, but it was obviously huge for Norm and Interstate Batteries as well.”
Even today, Makar, who at that time had been involved in NASCAR for more than 15 years, jokes that Miller and Gibbs were so new to the sport that they had no idea what they had pulled off on that sunny February afternoon in 1993, beating Earnhardt and that famous black No. 3 car.
“They had no clue,” Makar said with a laugh. “They had no clue that he was the guy. And we beat him to win the Daytona 500.”