The 1997 Daytona 500, the 39th running of the event, was held on February 16 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Consisted of 200 laps and 500 miles, it was the first race of the 1997 Winston Cup season. Mike Skinner, driving the #31 car for Richard Childress Racing, won the pole and Jeff Gordon, driving the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, won the race. The race was broadcast on television by CBS. This was the race that made Earnhardt all that much more legendary, as even after a major wreck on lap 187, the "Man In Black" finished the race, refusing to surrender.
When the race opened Mike Skinner led for the first lap of the race, but was overtaken by Dale Earnhardt coming through turn 2 on the second lap. After the first caution and pit stops, Dale still led off of pit road, although a few drivers did not pit. The race restarted on lap 53, with Jeff Gordon as the leader and Earnhardt in 7th. Another caution came out on lap 90, and the race restarted again on lap 94 with Mark Martin as the leader. The fourth caution came out for debris on lap 97. The race restarted on lap 99 with Mark Martin still the leader. The 5th caution came out on lap 122 when Greg Sacks hit the inside retaining wall hard. Sacks was OK.
Mark Martin still led, even after pit stops. The race restarted on lap 126, with Martin still leading. Martin eventually lost the lead with 55 to go, in between turns 3 and 4, when Ernie Irvan got an incredible run on the highside. By the 50 to go mark, Earnhardt, who had this far not been a factor, had worked his way into the top 5. With 49 to go, Earnhardt ran into turns 1-2 really hard on the inside and moved up to 3rd. On lap 154 Ernie Irvan got shuffled down low and Bill Elliott got a huge run on the highside, allowing Bill Elliott to get around and pull away from the pack. Earnhardt raced Irvan on the highside for 2nd, also trying to get around. In turns 1-2 of lap 155 Elliott went high to try and block Earnhardt, which allowed Irvan to go inside. However, down the backstretch Earnhardt pushed Elliott clear of Irvan, but couldn't clear himself. Earnhardt finally cleared Irvan through turns 1-2 of lap 157 and took 2nd. After another restart the race restarted with 30 to go, with Sterling Marlin leading; Earnhardt was 3rd.
On lap 179 Earnhardt was 2nd to Bill Elliott, and Jeff Gordon, who until now had not been a factor, was running 3rd. On lap 187, coming off of turn 2 Jeff Gordon went inside of Earnhardt and took all the air off of his car, leading to Earnhardt getting loose in front of Dale Jarrett, who hit Earnhardt's car which then got airborne. Earnhardt was OK after the wreck, and was getting into the infield care center ambulance. Earnhardt looked back at the car and asked the person behind the wheel if it would still fire. When the car stuttered back to life Earnhardt got back in and drove it back down to pit road for repair. This event showed many fans of NASCAR, even those who didn't like Earnhardt, how much he wanted that win and how he'd never give up. When Gordon came down the front stretch, fans were seen flipping him off for his actions. Gordon would go on to win the race under caution, with his teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven finishing 2nd and 3rd behind him. The fans cheered when Earnhardt got his car fixed up enough to go back out and finish the race.