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The Hunt's Over|
After 19 failed attempts, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt finally won his first Daytona 500and even a guy as ornery as the Man in Black got a little misty over that
by Ed Hinton
Posted: Wed February 18, 1998
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 wonthe richest winner's share in the history of stock car racingwas so beside the point that he cracked, "What's the $5 for?"
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 dramaplayed out under threatening skies before more than 175,000 fansbegan 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 123not even Gordon was sure of the momenthe 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 stronga new engine had been installed on Saturdayand 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 over."
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 watered up."
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 hereexcept 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 primethat 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."
Issue date: February 23, 1998
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