History The Earnhardt Connection

Earnhardt enjoys aftermath of historic win
Shawn A. Akers
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 16, 1998)

Dale's Daytona 500 winning Chevrolet goes on display in DAYTONA USA.

Dale Earnhardt still has to pinch himself. One day removed, he's still trying to convince himself of the biggest racing victory in his life.

"I woke up this morning, and I still don't believe I won the Daytona 500," said Earnhardt, who won the "Great American Race" in his 20th attempt on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt was on hand at DAYTONA USA Monday morning for a press gathering and to meet several hundred diehard fans who braved the rainy weather, as his winning No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet was put on display in "Gatorade Victory Lane" at "The Ultimate Motorports Attraction" for the next year.

"I talked all yesterday (Sunday) about the race and about my feelings about the race, and they haven't changed a bit except that they've gotten better," said Earnhardt, who was joined at the function by his wife, Teresa; car owner Richard Childress and his wife, Judy; crew chief Larry McReynolds; Dale Earnhardt Inc. President Don Hawk; and PR representative J.R. Rhodes.

"The feeling has gotten better. I'm really enjoying this one and will probably enjoy it for quite a while."

As will Childress, who also gained his first Daytona 500 win on Sunday.

"I woke up about two o'clock this morning and couldn't get back to sleep just because of the excitement," Childress said. "The night before, I woke up about 1:30 and I couldn't go back to sleep worrying about engines and trying to think of anything that may go wrong the next day, so it was a great feeling to wake up and have that problem instead of worrying about something race-related. It's just an unbelievable feeling."

DAYTONA USA will display the Daytona 500-winning car for the third year in a row. Dale Jarrett's No. 88 Quality Care/Ford Credit Ford Thunderbird was the first to have that distinction, after Jarrett won the 1996 race. Jeff Gordon's No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet was on display until Sunday's race, after Gordon won the 1997 event.

"I'm only happy to donate it. I've never won the Daytona 500 before," Earnhardt said. "I don't know about Richard, but I'm very happy about it. Very excited. We're already planning for next year since we've got to build a new race car for Talladega."

"We're working on building another car already," Childress said. "We've got the chassis and we're ready to go with it. We built this car in August or September. That's when we started working on it.

"All through the year we always save one of our tests to go to Talladega and test before the end of the season. We tested this car and we knew right away that it was an awful good car. We did a lot of testing. This car has got a lot of testing on it, a lot of miles, and we'll be very proud to give it to Daytona."

By coincidence, Earnhardt, Gordon and Jarrett are the three drivers who shot a TV commercial prior to the 1997 Daytona 500 promoting DAYTONA USA. All three now have donated their cars to the motorsports attraction after winning the race.

Childress and Earnhardt have been together for six of Earnhardt's seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships. But never has one victory been so satisfying for either. The big question surrounding Earnhardt's career, "Why can't he win the Daytona 500?" no longer applies.

"I feel happy for everybody involved, especially Richard," Earnhardt said. "He's been coming down here more years than I have. All the disappointments we've had down here, the hard luck, the competitive race cars... you just work so hard coming here, focused on this race. It's the only race you get a couple of months to plan for.

"The disappointments you go through, the chapters you write each year of the race, and to finally win this race it's just as big for Richard Childress and him and his family and his whole organization as it is for me.

"The thing about it is, all those races we lost, we won this race together. We won it as a team. There wasn't a man on that race team that didn't have something to do with this win."

In addition to Earnhardt's car, which is intact exactly as it rolled into the speedway's Victory Lane after cutting several doughnuts in the tri-oval grass, Earnhardt's helmet and gloves will also be part of the display.

DAYTONA USA guests enter "Gatorade Victory Lane" after watching "The Daytona 500 Movie," the attraction's premier show that is preceded by a 15-minute pre-show on the "World's Greatest Race."

1998 Unimount Enterprises