History The Earnhardt Connection

1997 Daytona 500

car3.jpg (16424 bytes)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 exception.

Yes, this day will be added to the long list of failed attempts here for the man they call "The Intimidator."

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.

car2.jpg (28927 bytes)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.

car1.jpg (22116 bytes)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.

car5.jpg (15868 bytes)"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 championship for."

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.

car4.jpg (19635 bytes)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