Another year, another Daytona 500
disappointment for Dale Earnhardt. But oh, what a disappointment.
No matter what it is, Earnhardt never does anything halfway, and Sunday was no
Yes, this day will be added to the long list of failed attempts here for the man they call
But in the 39th running of the race he has never won Earnhardt -- the driver who
arguably is the only living legend still strapping on a helmet and driving shoes -- added
to the lore that already has cemented him among the greats of the sport.
A day of promise ended in a violent fashion for Earnhardt when he got caught up in a
tangle with race-winner Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan while battling for
second place on lap 189.
Coming out of Turn 2, Gordon tried to get by Earnhardt for second and
Earnhardt was crowded toward the outside wall. Earnhardt brushed the wall and came
back to touch doors with Gordon, who was diving underneath, trying to overtake him in the
No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
As the black GM Goodwrench Service machine slowed from the contact, a hard-charging Dale
Jarrett clipped its bumper, sending Earnhardt and his Monte Carlo into a spinning roll
that left tire tracks and sheet metal strewn the length of the 3,000-foot backstretch.
Midway through his roller coaster ride, Earnhardt was tagged hard by Ernie Irvan, the
impact returning his car to an upright position, where it remained as it spun crazily into
the grass infield.
The crowd held its breath, only to roar several minutes later as Earnhardt climbed out of
the ambulance, slipped into his battered ride, and tore through Turns 3 and 4, helmetless,
in a return to the pits that would allow him to finish the race.
Opposing pit crews high-fived as he shot past.
Fire crews and NASCAR Winston Cup Series officials shook their heads in amazement.
And everyone, no matter how they felt about the sometimes controversial native of
Kannapolis, N.C. , tipped their cap in a well-deserved sign of respect.
"Oh, he's invincible, he's the best," said Darrell Waltrip, who trailed the
crash. "He always does something spectacular, don't he? Nothing he ever does
surprises me, and I mean that in the best way."
This was not 1986, when he ceded the race to Geoff Bodine on a fuel gamble gone wrong.
Nor was it 1990, when a cut tire burst his first-place bubble and opened the door
for Derrike Cope's Cinderella victory.
It was not 1993 and 1996 when he chased Jarrett to the line. And it was a far cry
from 1995, when he followed Sterling Marlin to the stripe. He was running, but not where
he wanted to be.
So Sunday, Earnhardt wasn't taking no for an answer, despite the fact that his car looked
barely suitable for a salvage yard.
"When I stopped, I looked at it and got in the ambulance and
looked back over there and I said 'man, the wheels ain't knocked off that car yet,'
"Earnhardt said. "I went back over there and looked at the wheels and I told the
guy in the car to fire it up.
"It fired up and I said, 'get out. Unhook me, I've got to go.' We took off
after 'em. You've got to get all the laps you can. That's what we're running for the
Gordon, whose respect for Earnhardt is matched only by his skill as a driver,
regretted his role in the accident. He chalked it up to the old driver's credo that
explains much of what happens on a track. When all else fails, the phrase "That's
racing," seems to sum it all up.
Still, as Earnhardt approached Victory Lane, where the party for Gordon and his
Rainbow Warriors team was in full swing, the 1995 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion
admitted he was holding his breath, wondering if he was going to get a congratulatory
handshake, or an accusatory punch in the nose.
Instead, Earnhardt, as much a gentleman as he is a competitor, gave
him a sign that washed away any tension that might have existed between the two.
"At the end of the race, when it was all over I see this mangled black 3 car
coming up and I said 'uh-oh, what's he gonna do,' " Gordon said, only half in jest.
"But he came up and gave me the thumbs up. I know he wanted to win the Daytona 500,
but that just shows you what class he has.
"It just goes to show you, don't ever count that guy out, he's the man of
steel. We saw what he did with broken bones last year and I know we're going to see that
same determination for the rest of his career. It's why so many race car drivers look up
to him and want to be like him."
© 1998, 1999 Unimount Enterprises