At last Earnhardt wins
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 15,
Dale has won one a Gatorade 125 race in Daytona every year in the 1990's.
In one of the
most emotion-charged finishes in the history of Daytona International Speedway, Dale
Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion whose racing achievements are
the stuff of dreams, did something he hadn't been able to do for 20 years.
He won the Daytona 500 -- finally.
And in doing so, he removed the one stigma of his celebrated career. No longer can it be
said that Earnhardt, ranked as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, can't win
the Daytona 500.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" said an exuberant Earnhardt in Victory Lane. "Twenty
years! Can you believe it!"
Believe it. After years in which Earnhardt lost the Daytona 500 in just about every way
imaginable -- out of gas here, a cut tire there, a missing lug nut over there -- this time
Fate would not deny him.
Earnhardt, who has now won 31 races at Daytona, including this first Daytona 500, ended a
59-race losing streak and effectively hushed the talk that he couldn't drive 500 hard,
competitive miles after mysteriously blacking out on the first lap of the Southern 500 at
Darlington last year.
In fact, in the Daytona 500, he was clearly the sentimental favorite. Even those who do
not count themselves as among his fans said that if their chosen driver could not win,
they wanted Earnhardt to win to end his years of futility.
"This win is for all our fans and all the people who told me, 'Dale, this is your
year,'" Earnhardt said. "There was a lot of hard work that went into this and I
have to thank every member of the Richard Childress Racing team. I have had a lot of great
fans and people behind me all through the years and I just can't thank them enough."
"The Daytona 500 is over. And we won it! We won it!"
But he very could have easily lost it - again - and if he had, it would most likely have
gone down as one of the most disappointing episodes of his career.
As it turned out, Earnhardt held off a furious attack from the likes of Jeremy Mayfield,
Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte as the 200-lap race sped to its conclusion.
Earnhardt, in the GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet, was the race's dominant figure.
But as he himself will tell you, that's never been enough in itself for him to win the
Daytona 500. This time, it was.
Earnhardt, who led five times for 107 laps, more than any other driver, made a pass around
teammate Mike Skinner on lap 140 to take the lead he would hold for the remainder of the
race, although he certainly didn't know it at the time.
On lap 174, the race's second caution period began after Robert Pressley and John Andretti
spun down the backstretch. One lap later, Earnhardt led the parade of leaders down pit
It was obvious that this would be the final stop and the leaders opted to make it as quick
as possible. All took on right-side tires only.
It was Earnhardt who was out first, followed by Skinner, Mayfield, Wallace and Jeff
Gordon, the winner of the 1997 Daytona 500.
When the race restarted, there were just 12 laps to go. The situation was this: Earnhardt
was in front with teammate Skinner behind him. That gave Earnhardt the ideal drafting
partner and he would need it, because in third and fourth were Mayfield and Wallace, who
became teammates in the Penske organization for this season when Roger Penske became a
partner with Michael Kranefuss on Mayfield's team.
It was clear Earnhardt and Skinner would combine their forces to escape Mayfield and
Wallace, if they could.
That strategy was doomed. On lap 179, Skinner was pushed high out of the draft in turn one
and that allowed Mayfield and Wallace, in Fords, to close on Earnhardt's rear bumper.
Gordon moved to fourth place and Skinner fought Labonte for fifth.
Five laps passed as Earnhardt, now on his own, eyed his rear view mirror and kept his foot
in the throttle as the Penske Fords menaced his rear. Then, on lap 184, Gordon shot to the
low side of Wallace in the first turn, but Wallace made a blocking move that broke his
tandem with Mayfield and allowed Earnhardt some precious space.
On lap 194, Gordon made another move. This time he went to the high side of the Fords
ahead of him and split them, moving into third place behind Mayfield.
The running order stayed that way until lap 197, when Wallace shot by Gordon on the
backstretch and once again united with his teammate.
Then, one lap later, Labonte, in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac and the pole winner,
pushed his car to the high side and managed to clear Mayfield coming out of the fourth
turn to move into second place. As he did so, Gordon drifted back out of the melee, the
victim of a dropped cylinder.
There were two laps remaining.
On lap 199, the race's third and final caution period began when Andretti, Lake Speed and
Jimmy Spencer tangled on the backstretch. When the leaders got back to the line, they
would see the yellow and white flags fly simultaneously.
The first one to them would win the race.
Earnhardt gave it all he had. He was able to utilize the lapped Ford of Rick Mast as a
pick and got a bit of a break as Labonte and Wallace jostled each other for position.
He crossed the line ahead of them. And the grandstands erupted.
One last, comfortable, tension-free lap was all Earnhardt had left to make. With the
checkered flag came the end of 19 previous years of frustration.
"I had a good feeling after Thursday (Feb. 12, the day he won his 125-mile qualifying
race)," Earnhardt said. "I knew we had a good race car and that's what's
important. We worked hard all day long to keep it in position and to keep it in place to
Earnhardt averaged 172.712 mph - the third-quickest race in Daytona 500 history - and he
averaged about a handshake per second as he made his way to victory lane. Pit road was
lined by crew members from virtually every team in the Daytona 500. No one could remember
such a reception line.
Some of the seven-time Winston Cup champion's crewmen cried openly as they returned to the
garage area, their driver having at long last captured the richest and most prestigious
As if to display his excitement to the fans, Earnhardt sped off pit road, into the grass
and cut doughnuts. Later, fans would retrieve chunks of the torn-up sod for souvenirs.
The victory was worth $1,059,150 to Earnhardt and marked the first time in NASCAR Winston
Cup Series racing the winner's share of the purse was over $1 million.
Labonte finished second, Mayfield third and Ken Schrader, broken sternum and all, came
home fourth. Wallace was fifth, with Ernie Irvan sixth, Chad Little seventh, Skinner
eighth, Michael Waltrip ninth and Bill Elliott tenth.
© 1998 Unimount Enterprises