It just could be NASCAR Winston Cup racing's most frantic game-the final laps of the Daytona 500.

Although it looks spectacular to the fans that witness the free-for-all as the best drivers in the sport battle for victory in the Daytona 500, to the drivers in the field, it's mayhem. The slightest wrong move could make the difference between finishing first or 15th, or-even worse-potential disaster.

Intense racing action has made the Daytona 500 the most anticipated NASCAR Winston Cup race of the season. And as the sport enters the new millenium, the 2000 Daytona 500 has all the ingredients to live up to the dramatic finishes of the past.

"It's pretty much Katie, bar the door," said Bobby Labonte, who has been in the middle of those closing lap battles but has yet to win the Daytona 500. "Usually, if there are a group of five cars, which I've been in a few times, it's not bad. But when you get in those restarts at the end, and there are 25 cars in it, and Daytona is a little bit worse because handling is more of a factor than Talladega, it just becomes a mess.

"Somebody is getting a run on somebody; somebody is backpedaling a little bit; somebody is running hard; somebody is going to dart low. You think you are going to block somebody high, so you go high, and then they go low. The guy goes high, and then he fakes low.

"Well, you've gone from second to seventh in one corner, and there might not be a way you'll get back up there. It's such a chess game."

The driving style it takes to win the Daytona 500 is unlike any other in racing. It takes a vastly different approach than racing on the short tracks or the intermediate-sized speedways. It's high-speed action on the ragged edge.

"You are looking in the rearview mirror the last few laps more than you are looking through the windshield," Labonte said. "If you are leading, or whatever position you are in, you are trying to roll the dice or play the chess game on where everybody is at. At other tracks, you don't.

"It's nerve-wracking. Usually, the only guy who is happy after a superspeedway race is the guy who wins, and he is usually still in disbelief."

Jeff Gordon understands what it takes to excel in this high-speed, fast-action game of racing the high banks of Daytona. He is a two-time defending winner of the Daytona 500 and used an aggressive racing style to bully his way to the front to win last year's race.

"That's the nature of Daytona; it's an exciting place," Gordon said. "The restrictor plates and drafting offers for great competition and a great battle, all the way to the end. Guys are starting to figure out ways to get momentum and drafting help to make a pass.

"For a while, it was get out front and just take off, and nobody can touch you. Now, guys are being able to make things happen, and it's pretty exciting all the way down to the finish."

When asked to describe what goes through a race driver's mind during the closing-lap free-for-alls-when drivers are shuffling for position at a frantic rate-Gordon was able to encapsulate it simply.

"It's fun and frightening at the same time," Gordon explained. "It's one of those things where all of a sudden, here comes the shuffle. You hope you are in the right line making the right move at the right time. Everybody is bang, bang, bang-things start happening. And once they start happening, you are caught up in it, and you don't know what is really happening. You are making instinctive moves and hoping they are the right ones."

With the cars running so close, so fast, and with such little room for error, the closing laps in the Daytona 500 can become a fairly dangerous game, reserved for only the most skilled stock car racers in the world.

"Oh yes, it can be dangerous," Gordon admitted. "But I like dealing with the guys you are usually dealing with up in the front of the pack. It's three-wide sometimes. It's where you hope nobody makes a mistake. The cars can be pretty stable in a situation like that, as long as everybody uses their heads and doesn't really get into one another. There are times when you have to lift and times when you better keep that thing on the floor. I think the guys that are smart and do the right things are able to take risks at other times, and they work out.

"It's knowing when to take the risk and when not to."

Gordon knew when to take the risk in the '99 Daytona 500. When Rusty Wallace was in the lead with 11 laps to go, Gordon made what is probably the defining racing move of his glorious career.

As the field plowed through the front stretch with 11 laps remaining, Gordon drove low on the track heading through the first turn. Much to his shock, he saw Ricky Rudd's slower car pulling out of pit lane after making a pit stop. As Gordon rapidly approached the rear of Rudd's Ford, it was decision time.

Should Gordon lift and pull back in line? Or, should he keep the gas pedal down and hope to weave through, possibly putting Rudd at risk?

Wallace decided discretion was the better part of valor as he slowed down just enough to let the speeding Gordon through before he caused a crash that would have likely taken out all of the leaders.

There was no way Gordon was going to slow down, and although Wallace considered the move dangerous, it won the race for Gordon.

"I think what makes a good driver is knowing when to be patient and when to be aggressive," Gordon said. "You have to be able to get aggressive when you need to. Sometimes, that is what is going to win you the race, and it definitely won me the race at Daytona last year.

"You have to be patient enough to let that opportunity come to you, and be smart enough to know how aggressive and how far you can take it."

Mention last year's Daytona 500 to Wallace, and he still cringes from the disappointment. It was the first time in Wallace's career that he drove a race car that dominated Daytona, but the end result saw him finish 11th. He came back in July to dominate the Pepsi 400 and fell victim to another late-race shuffle that dropped him, once again, to an 11th-Place finish.

"I think we had the very best car at Daytona last year in the Daytona 500 and the Pepsi 400," Wallace said. "I led the most laps in both races only to lose with 11 laps to go. Hopefully, I've learned from those mistakes. "It took me a long time to get over the Daytona deal-it really did."

After so many disasters at Daytona, where Wallace was either noncompetitive, fell out of the race because of mechanical problems, or went flipping down the backstretch in a horrifying wreck, Wallace is confident he has a race car capable of winning the 2000 Daytona 500.

"To go to Daytona before thinking, Man, I've been in so many crashes down there, it's unreal, and to be in a real bad car, to go in 1999 and everybody say, 'That #2 car is the best car at Daytona and Talla-dega,' that feels good," Wallace said.

While he continues to find the keys to success at Daytona, another Ford driver won the prestigious event twice in the '90s. Dale Jarrett drove a Joe Gibbs Chevrolet to the checkered flag in 1993. Three years later, Jarrett drove a Robert Yates Ford to victory for his second Daytona 500 triumph.

The '99 NASCAR Winston Cup champion is ready to join an even more exclusive list of drivers who have won the Daytona 500 three times. That list includes Richard Petty (a seven-time winner), Cale Yarborough (four times), and Bobby Allison (three times).