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?"
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 May-field 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 May-field 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."