The Earnhardt Connection - News

Earnhardt: Keep the Car, I Want my Penny
The Earnhardt Connection
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 16, 1998)

They can keep the car. They can keep the helmet and goggles. Dale Earnhardt just wants the lucky penny back.

The penny was a gift from one of five seriously ill children from the Make A Wish Foundation who visited the NASCAR office the day before the Daytona 500.

"This one little girl, she was tiny but she had a pretty voice," said Earnhardt, not looking or sounding much like The Intimidator on Monday. "She gave me this penny.

"She said, 'I rubbed this penny and this is going to win you the Daytona 500.' I glued that penny to my dashboard and it's still on my dashboard."

On Monday, Earnhardt was on hand to help turn over his winning black No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo to Daytona USA, the motorsports attraction outside the tunnel at Daytona International Speedway.

The winner is obligated to lease the car to Daytona USA, for $100,000. The car is displayed until next year's winning car is wheeled in. The agreement calls for the car to remain exactly as it was when the driver climbed out in Victory Circle.

"My helmet and goggles are in there and there's still champagne and Coke all over it," Earnhardt said. "There's even some dirt from the infield.

"You know this car never lost," he continued. "It won the 125 (-mile qualifying race) and the Daytona 500. But we'll be happy to give it to them. We're already building a new one for Talladega (in April)."

In a race that he twice before had lost on the last lap, Earnhardt won Daytona by holding off a squadron of challengers. Then came a crash on lap 199 that gave him the chance to enjoy the final 2 1/2-mile lap on the high-banked oval.

"I wish every race driver that ever runs Daytona could feel what we felt yesterday in victory lane," Earnhardt said. "That's one of the greatest feelings in your life, to work that many years and come so close and be so dominant and finally win that race. It's an accomplishment I won't forget."

So popular was the outcome that crewmen from most rival teams lined pit road to shake Earnhardt's hand.

Darrell Waltrip, who didn't win his first Daytona 500 until 1989 in his 17th try, said: "Now we can both sit in rocking chairs someday and talk about how we won the Daytona 500 and nobody will feel bad."

Added Geoff Bodine, who won in 1986: "If anyone deserves it, it was Dale Earnhardt. I know how he feels right now."

Earnhardt can now tend to the next item on his agenda: winning a record eighth Winston Cup championship. His next race is Sunday at Rockingham, N.C.

"This is a good start," he said. "Winning the Daytona 500 don't give you no edge on winning a championship, but it shows everybody this team is ready for the season."

Earnhardt was asked if this victory has changed him in any way. The familiar hard-eyed look returned to his piercing eyes.

"It's still me," he said. "Still determined.''

And still determined to get that penny back.