First at last: Earnhardt’s lone 500 victory still resonates
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR’s “Intimidator,” winning his first Cup championship in only his second full season. Earnhardt had achieved about all there was to do in NASCAR by 1998, including a record-tying seven Cup Series championships.
Winning the Daytona 500 was the only milestone that eluded Earnhardt over the first two decades of his career. Bad luck, missed opportunities and close calls stamped him 0 for 19 in NASCAR’s biggest race even though he was typically one of the favorites.
It all changed on Feb. 15, 1998. At 46, Earnhardt was the sentimental choice and, at last, won “The Great American Race.” It’s a NASCAR moment that has stood the test of time. It included a lucky penny and a pit-road processional never before seen in auto racing.
This is the story of that memorable day, told by men who lived it: his owner (Childress), his crew chief (Larry McReynolds), two fellow championship drivers (Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip), and the race announcer (Mike Joy).
Earnhardt had won 30 races at Daytona entering that day, so despite a 59-race winless streak in the Cup Series, he was the popular pick to end both streaks in the season opener.
Childress: He was always confident racing here. But we all just felt like that was our day. ... We knew we always had a shot. He was a man that could make up everything for us and he did that day.
McReynolds: It just seemed like the deeper we got into Speedweeks, the better the car got. I think we finally reached the point that we really felt like the only team that could beat us is if we ended up doing something to beat ourselves.
Earnhardt had a number of fluky failures in the Daytona 500. In 1997, with 10 laps to go and running near the front, he was involved in a late crash on the backstretch. In 1993, Dale Jarrett passed him for the lead on the last lap. In 1991, he obliterated a seagull on the backstretch, damaging his radiator. In 1990, he cut a tire less than mile from the finish line.
McReynolds: You knew until you absolutely saw that checkered flag wave that race was not over, that it was not in the books, that it was not a done deal.
Waltrip: It got down to the end of the race, I said, ‘Who’s leading?’ (Crew chief Jeff Hammond) said, ‘Dale.’ I said, ‘Well, he won’t win.’ He never had. Always something would happen, but this day he pulled it off.
As Earnhardt crossed the finish line, the grandstands erupted in celebration. No one expected that emotion to carry onto pit road. As Earnhardt drove toward victory lane, crew members from nearly every team lined up to congratulate him.
Childress: A lot of people had a love/hate relationship with Dale. But there were so many fans, people that worked on other race teams that were really Dale Earnhardt fans. And to see them all out there, everyone know how important that win was to Dale. I just hugged him and said, ‘Man, we got it. We got it. We finally got it.’
McReynolds: Even the 18 team of Bobby Labonte and Joe Gibbs Racing that had run second to us, they were even out there congratulating Dale.
Waltrip: I remember coming around off Turn 4 and all the cars are backed up on the track. I said to Hammond, ‘What’s going on anyway? How come we can’t get on pit road?’ He said, ‘Pit road is full of people and they’re all standing out there. Everybody is wanting to congratulate Dale.’
Earnhardt credited 6-year-old Wessa Miller for helping him get that elusive win. He met Miller through the Make-A-Wish Foundation following the final practice for the race. Miller gave Earnhardt the penny and told him she had rubbed it and that it would bring him good luck.
McReynolds: The car gets back to the garage area and no Dale. ... Finally, here he comes and he’s like a man on a mission. He walks by me like I wasn’t even standing there. I see him over in the tool box, digging through drawers. I said, Dale, ‘What are doing?’ He says, ‘I got something I’ve got to do.’ I knew he had something in his hand. He kept pulling drawers open. He finally found a tube of weather-strip adhesive like we glue the lug nuts on the wheels. I finally looked at him and he had glue running down his uniform. He had enough glue on this one penny to glue a dollar’s worth of pennies on the dash. I finally said, ‘Dale, I don’t know what you’re trying to do. Let me help you. I think you’re trying to glue this somewhere and then we can go to the hauler and talk about this engine.’ ... We got the penny glued on the dash.
Childress: The lucky penny the little girl gave him is still on the dash today.
The race still resonates throughout racing — partly because Earnhardt died three years later at the famed track but mostly because he came up short so many times before. There have been better races and finishes, but arguably never a better Daytona 500 moment.
Gordon: There was not a lot of phenomenal racing, yet people go back and say this is one of the all-time greatest races. It’s more because of the story.
Waltrip: When an Earnhardt does something, it’s a big deal — whether it’s Junior or Senior. There have been a lot of incredible Daytona 500s, before that win and after that win. It’s certainly one that because of what Dale meant to the sport and what that race meant to Dale that gives that race a little bit more significance than maybe some of the others.
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