History The Earnhardt Connection

Earnhardt wants his day in Daytona
Bill Weber
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 12, 1998)

For the 20th time, Dale will attempt to make history by winning his first Daytona 500.

Earnhardt wins at Daytona! Earnhardt wins at Daytona! Again!

Now that's an attention-grabbing headline if ever there was one. If I can use it Sunday night, it would really mean a lot. Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion returned to Victory Lane for the first time in a year Thursday at Daytona, winning his Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Race and earning a starting spot in the second row for the Daytona 500.

Some people will say it was just a qualifying race, but I believe it is more than that. Much more. And I'm fairly certain Earnhardt and his entire GM Goodwrench Service Plus crew believe it was more than just a qualifying race.

Earnhardt passed. Earnhardt led. Earnhardt led much of the way. Earnhardt was in Victory Lane. After a season of struggle, make that a winless season of struggle, Earnhardt has been positive and positively confident since the Winston Cup parade marched into Daytona for the 11 days of Speedweeks.

Just in case you are a new race fan, or you've been hypnotized while watching those riveting episodes of Ally McBeal, let me explain. Earnhardt isn't thirsting for a win, he's starving for one. He hasn't won a points race since his victory in Atlanta in March, 1996. That was 59 races ago.

In 1997, veteran crew chief Larry McReynolds joined Richard Childress Racing to work with Earnhardt. A dream team. A nightmare season. No wins. Just seven finishes in the top five. Fifth place in points. Not bad for some, brutal for Earnhardt.

Each week his fans, and his competitors watched and waited for The Intimidator to intimidate. It never really happened. And while the 46-year-old driver showed flashes of his winning form, he didn't win. He talked about why, and when, and how. But the unexpected happened. Dale didn't win one race.

There is also one race Dale has never won. The one they run here on Sunday. This Daytona 500 is a pretty big deal. The King, Richard Petty, won it seven times. Earnhardt, the heir to his throne, has yet to capture this jewel. Does that mean his crown is a little tarnished? Not really. It still shines bright, but without this precious gem, his fans know something is missing.

So, he travels down to Florida. His plane gets damaged while it is parked when another plane is blown into it by the high winds at the Daytona airport. He runs the fourth-fastest time in last Saturday's qualifying. Now he wins his 125-Mile qualifier.

Do you still think it was just a qualifying race? Not for the Man in Black.

Earnhardt now jumps squarely into the spotlight on a very large stage. Speedweeks is the race weekend that never ends, the "Groundhog Day" of the racing world. Every morning you get up and do the same thing. Work on the car. Practice the car. Qualify the car. Work on the car some more. Go home. Go to bed and wait for Sonny and Cher to start singing from inside your clock/radio in the morning.

It's an endless assault by new sponsors seeking exposure, and old sponsors hoping you won't forget them. Old friends have moved to new teams, and there's barely enough time to find them, let alone talk to them.

Then come the twin qualifiers on Thursday. Finally. Some racing. That's why we're here, isn't it? The twins determine the majority of the starting grid for the Daytona 500. The rest of the field is based on qualifying times and provisional starting spots. I would explain the whole process, if only I understood it.

The Gatorade 125s are the light at the end of a very long tunnel. Unfortunately for some teams, that light is on the front of a charging freight train which derails their team and their dream. Fifty seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams came here hoping to grasp one of 43 lucrative starting positions in the Super Bowl of stock car racing. Fourteen head home disappointed. This year that stomach-churning list includes Johnny Benson, Todd Bodine, Kenny Wallace, Jeff Green, David Green, Hut Stricklin and Wally Dallenbach.

It's the most disillusioning aspect of the furious frenzy Winston Cup racing is zooming through. A lot of people want to play. Not everyone can. Not every race. Not every week. You can argue both sides of the too-many-teams-not-enough-spots issue. But, the bottom line is, it's better than the other way around.

Market bullish for the Taurus

The Ford Taurus is better than the Ford teams will let you believe. And watch it get even better as we head into this race and head for the three other restrictor-plate races later in the season. Taurus teams can't wait to get to Rockingham. Actually, most of the guys are pretty anxious to first get home for a few days.

Rusty Wallace has a clear advantage over the other Ford teams because his guys built the mousetrap. Now they have to make sure they don't get a finger caught in it.

Wallace's qualifying time was eighth fastest. He was the fastest Ford, and he won the Bud Shootout. He raced well in the twins and will start 12th on Sunday. Rusty has never won a race on a restrictor-plate track. Early in the week, he said he would pay a $1 million to win one. Maybe his luck is changing. Rusty started 13th in the Shootout. The last two drivers to win the Bud Shootout (formerly the Busch Clash) have won the Daytona 500.

While Rusty would pay $1 million to win, this race pays a $1 million bonus to win if your name is Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Ernie Irvan or John Andretti. It's the first step of the No Bull 5, a series of five races that pay $1 million to one of five qualified drivers if they win a designated race. The Daytona 500 is the fifth designated race. The five drivers qualified by finishing in the top five at Talladega last October.

Earnhardt is not one of those drivers. He doesn't care about the money. Well, maybe he does, a little. But he does care about the race. No, not the race, but the race. This isn't just another 500. This is simply the 500. It's the 500 Earnhardt has started 19 times, and the 500 he has never won.

On Sunday, Earnhardt will start his 20th. And after winning that qualifying race, how does he feel about this 500?

"It's 20 years," Earnhardt said. "We're going to win this one. It's time."

Now that's intimidating.

1998 Unimount Enterprises