From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 23, 1998
TWENTY TIMES DALE EARNHARDT HAD TRIED TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500. Nineteen times he'd failed, often in astounding fashion. So just after 3 p.m. on Feb. 15 an old man climbed out of Earnhardt's car in Victory Lane, his 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. The most overdue victory in NASCAR's 50-year history had finally arrived.
Earnhardt stomped 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 the reporters—"monkey off my back!"
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, in his notorious front-running number 3 black Chevy Monte Carlo, had started fourth and moved to first on the 17th of the 200 laps. Gordon had started 29th and gained ground at a lightning pace, moving to the front on Lap 59 after he had a better pit stop than Earnhardt's.
By the halfway point, 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, and he was in command of the race, seemingly for keeps. But Earnhardt had been in this position before only to have his heart broken repeatedly. This time, though, said Earnhardt, "It all played into my hand."
With 27 laps to go, Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace 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 the Intimidator and gave him an enormous aerodynamic shove.
After the boost, Earnhardt was gone.
At first Earnhardt said 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. After the winner's interview had concluded, he walked off without the frayed monkey, leaving it forgotten on the floor.