Twenty times Dale Earnhardt had tried to win the Daytona 500.
Nineteen times he'd failed, often astoundingly. So just after 3
p.m. on Sunday an old man climbed out of Earnhardt's car in
Victory Lane, his cobalt eyes weary, his face suddenly lined
with wrinkles beyond his 46 years. It was as if all the sorrow
of those 19 losses had flashed back at once.
But as the overwhelming relief from having finally won American
auto racing's biggest event subsided, a youthful exuberance
began to flow through Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup
champion and the best stock car racer of his generation. Not
only had the most overdue victory in NASCAR's 50-year history
arrived but also a personal 59-race losing streak, dating to
March 1996, had been snapped.
By early evening Earnhardt was in his prime again. He stomped,
with an attention-demanding thud, onto the platform for the
winner's interview he'd coveted for so long. "I'm here," he
crowed. "And I've got that goddam"--and here he produced a
stuffed animal from behind his shoulders and flung it toward an
assemblage of reporters--"monkey off my back!"
The little toy monkey, once white, was dingy and worn. But
Earnhardt, the ninth-grade dropout out of the textile-mill town
of Kannapolis, N.C., who began racing on dirt tracks for grocery
money, had new life. His head flicked cockily as he announced,
rather than predicted, that this victory would be his
springboard to an unprecedented eighth Winston Cup championship.
The $1,059,105 that he'd won--the richest winner's share in the
history of stock car racing--was so beside the point that he
cracked, "What's the $5 for?"
February 23, 1998
For a change, the other drivers came up short in the 500 after
having made hard runs at Earnhardt's notorious front-running
black Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Pole sitter Bobby Labonte finished
second in a Pontiac Grand Prix after a fender-rubbing duel with
Jeremy Mayfield's Ford Taurus as they chased Earnhardt back to
the caution flag that fell for the final lap. Gutsy Ken
Schrader, who had suffered a cracked sternum when he wrecked in
a 125-mile qualifying race last Thursday, drove his backup Monte
Carlo to a fourth-place finish. Rusty Wallace, himself 0 for 16
in the Daytona 500, was fifth in a Taurus after failing to stay
glued to teammate Mayfield for a run on Earnhardt.
The afternoon's drama--played out under threatening skies before
more than 175,000 fans--began with 26-year-old defending
champion Jeff Gordon stalking Earnhardt for the lead. Earnhardt
had started fourth and moved to the front on the 17th of the 200
laps. Gordon had started 29th and gained ground at a lightning
pace, moving to the front after he had a better pit stop than
Earnhardt's on Lap 59.
By the halfway point of the race, Gordon's dominance brought to
mind a Southern outdoorsman's adage: Put out the fire and call
the dogs. The hunt's over. Gordon looked like a lock for a
repeat victory. But sometime just before Lap 123--not even
Gordon was sure of the moment--he hit a piece of debris on the
track and damaged the front-end air dam, ruining the perfect
handling of his car.
Running second at the time, Earnhardt blew past the slowing
Gordon and into the lead. His car was running strong--a new
engine had been installed on Saturday--and he was in command of
the race, seemingly for keeps. But Earnhardt had been in this
position before and had had his heart broken repeatedly. In 1986
he'd dominated the race but run out of fuel in the waning laps.
Four years later he had been in command for 499 miles, only to
run over debris and shred a tire in Turn 3 of the last lap. In
'93 and '96 he'd lost last-lap duels with Dale Jarrett. In '95
he'd made up 12 positions in the final 13 laps but finished
second to Sterling Marlin. On Sunday, 50 years to the day after
Red Byron won NASCAR's first race, on the sands of Daytona
Beach, "it worked out just right," said Earnhardt. "It all
played into my hand in the last few laps."
With 27 laps to go Mayfield and Wallace, driving for the newly
formed Penske-Kranefuss team, were preparing to draft past
Earnhardt when John Andretti and Robert Pressley collided,
bringing out just the second caution flag of the day. After the
lead pack pitted, Earnhardt got back onto the track first. A
lone wolf throughout his career, Earnhardt had balked last year
at the notion of having a teammate, but team owner Richard
Childress added Mike Skinner to his stable anyway. Earnhardt
couldn't have appreciated Skinner any more than at the moment
the green flag flew again with 23 laps left. Skinner tucked up
against Earnhardt and gave him an enormous aerodynamic shove.
"Mike was a very, very big player in keeping me out front,"
Earnhardt said afterward. "Then he paid the price, getting
shuffled back in the field [to finish eighth]. Mike Skinner is a
team player, and I thank him tremendously."
After the boost from Skinner, Earnhardt was gone. For once he
was able to keep the late-lap battles in his rearview mirror:
Gordon and Wallace rubbed broadside; Mayfield tapped Earnhardt
from behind; Gordon's engine failed with three laps to go; and
Labonte swooped high around Mayfield into second place. Then
Andretti became entangled in a second wreck, this time with
Jimmy Spencer and Lake Speed. "I saw it in my mirror," said
Earnhardt, "and I knew when I saw the white flag [signaling one
lap to go] and the yellow displayed together that I was going to
win the race if nothing happened to my car by the time I got
back to the start-finish line."
Though he ran the final caution lap at extraordinary speed, just
to get the race over with, Earnhardt claimed he wasn't anxious
in the last few laps. "People say, 'Did you hear things in the
car? Did you wonder who was going to pass you?'" he said. "I
wasn't thinking about what could happen. I was thinking about
what I was doing and what I had to do. I was working to keep the
race car up front. I was working to do that until somebody
turned me over"--he referred to last year's late-race rollover
after losing a showdown to Gordon--"or I got to the finish, one
of the two. I got to the finish line without anybody turning me
Earnhardt said, at first, that he "cried a little bit" when he
knew the race was won. Then he thought better of admitting to
such emotion. "I don't think I really cried," he said. "My eyes
Mustn't cry, old man. That would be too much like Gordon, who,
at the NASCAR awards dinner in December in New York City, had
wept openly upon accepting his second Winston Cup in three
years, while Earnhardt sat smirking in the audience. But on
Sunday the gracious Gordon, who wound up 16th, smiled and said
that Earnhardt "did what he does every year here--except he kept
doing it all the way to the end. We all would have loved to have
been in Victory Lane, but we're all real happy for Dale. If we
couldn't be there, we all loved for him to be there. He's earned
it, man. He deserves it."
Earnhardt's drive toward Victory Lane was slowed considerably
when crewmen from virtually every team poured out onto the pit
road to congratulate him with high fives and cheers. His arrival
was further delayed when he cut some "doughnuts" in the infield
grass near the finish line. When he ascended to the press room,
high above the speedway, he pointed out the artistry of his
spins through the grass. He'd cut a beautiful "3," his car
number since 1984, when he signed on with Childress. "I'm pretty
good at writin', huh?" said Earnhardt.
After the winner's interview had concluded, he walked off
without the frayed monkey, leaving it forgotten on the floor.
Then, in a back room of the tower, he sat on a stool and leaned
back against a wall, his intense eyes going soft as he thought
back on how far he had come, up from the mill town, up from the
dirt tracks, up through the years of trying to explain again and
again and again why stock car racing's best driver hadn't won
its biggest race.
"Now, I won't have to answer that question anymore," he said.
"The years of disappointment, the close calls, all the chapters
have been written. Now, the 20th chapter is in. To win this race
is something you can't, I mean, you really can't put into words.
You can talk about it all day, but you can't put into words the
feelings you have"--and here his voice rose and
cracked--"inside. It's everything you've ever worked hard to do,
and you've finally accomplished it. It's just pretty damn
impressive, especially with everything we've done here in the
past and all the shortcomings we've had in this race."
Earlier, in front of the media, Earnhardt had played his
favorite and best-known role of his prime--that of a cocky young
tough, a bit of the rakish s.o.b. Did this win take him back to
the sort of thrill he'd had, say, upon his first Winston Cup
victory, at Bristol in 1979, on his way to rookie of the year
honors? Or his first superspeedway win, at Atlanta the next
year? He shook his head slowly, rolled his eyes and then cast
them downward. "This is it. This is it. There ain't nothin'
gonna top this," Earnhardt said. But he was feeling young again.
"Well, maybe that eighth championship."
"We're all real happy for Dale," said Gordon. "He's earned it,
man. He deserves it."
"To win this race is something you can't put into words. Ain't
nothin' gonna top this."