Earnhardt History
1998 Daytona 500
At last Earnhardt wins Daytona 500
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 15, 1998)
By Steve Waid

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 road.

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 win."

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 NASCAR race.

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.



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."

Roof CamIn 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."


Copyright 2001 The Earnhardt Connection
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