History The Earnhardt Connection

Earnhardt fights his Daytona "demons"
The Earnhardt Connection
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 14, 1998)

One of the most perplexing situations in all of sports is Dale Earnhardt's quest for his first Daytona 500 victory.

Earnhardt is one of the greatest - if not the greatest - driver in NASCAR Winston Cup history. He has won seven NASCAR Winston Cup championships, 70 Winston Cup races, and $30,386,380 in career earnings. He is considered a legend of the sport and among his prestigious victories was a win in the second Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt is the all-time victory leader at Daytona International Speedway with 30 wins. But he has never won the Daytona 500, the premier race in NASCAR racing.

For a driver who has found every possible way to dominate the event, but not be the leader at the checkered flag, Earnhardt will make his 20th attempt at winning the 40th Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Earnhardt got an early tune-up for the race when he won Thursday's second Gatorade Twin 125-Mile Qualifying race and will start fourth behind the front row of pole winner Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte and beside Sterling Marlin.

"The Daytona 500 is a unique race," Earnhardt said. "It's a race that has eluded me. You could write a big book on everything that has happened to me the last 19 years in the Daytona 500.

"Our 20th year here, I'm sure we are going to write another chapter into it and hopefully, it will be a great chapter. We'll write a nice ending to it."

And it would be a grand chapter because the 40th Daytona 500 is the premier event as NASCAR celebrates its 50th anniversary.

"It would mean a lot to win it this year," Earnhardt said. "You couldn't write it any better than that. Being its NASCAR's 50th anniversary and to go on and win the Daytona 500 in our 20th year and NASCAR's 50th would be a heck of an honor and an accomplishment. We would make a little history there with the win."

To add to Earnhardt's challenge, he enters the Daytona 500 with a 59-race winless streak. Thursday's win in the qualifying race does not count as a Winston Cup victory.

"It's about time we got back in the winner's circle again," Earnhardt said. "We're going to start our winning streak here at Daytona and go from there.

"It's tough not to win. It's tough to go a year and not win. If you were a basketball or football or baseball team, you would really be on the outs. Everybody would be getting fired. I would like to win the Daytona 500. If I don't, may the best man win."

After finishing winless for the first time since 1981, Earnhardt appeared upset and irritated as the 1997 season came to an end. But so far in 1998, the swagger is back in Earnhardt's step, and the cocky demeanor is evident on his face and he enters the Daytona 500 with supreme confidence that he will finally win the biggest race in the sport.

"Every year when you come into the Daytona 500, you feel like you've got everything going for you," Earnhardt said. "You feel like you've got the best team, the best car, the best engines - everything is working great for you. After having a year under our belts with a new crew chief (Larry McReynolds), and the tuning we have done, I'm more confident right now."

Bill France, Jr., NASCAR's president, said if Earnhardt was given a choice of winning the Daytona 500 in NASCAR's 50th Anniversary, or win the Winston Cup title, he would predict Earnhardt would take the Winston Cup.

"I want to win it all," Earnhardt said. "Jeff Gordon did it, I can do it, too. Watch me.

"I plan on beating everybody, not just Jeff Gordon. There is a whole garage area full of guys over there. I focus on our team and what we can do. We have to win races, we have to finish in the top five as consistently as we can. If we do that, we are going to win championships. I'm not trying to outrun one person, and I'm not racing one person."

But what Earnhardt is trying to outrun is the Daytona 500 demons that have haunted him throughout his career. He hopes to exorcise those demons by finally winning the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

1998 Unimount Enterprises