<
>

82: Earnhardt wins the Daytona 500 on his 20th try

6/18/2004

He had won everything in his sport. Except the Daytona 500.

He had won $30 million, 30 Daytona International Speedway races, 70 NASCAR Winston Cup race wins in all and seven Winston Cup titles.

But he had not won the 500. Dale Earnhardt, considered by many as the Great American Racer, had never what many considered the Great American Race.

Everything that could go wrong in the 500 for Earnhardt had gone wrong -- 19 times in fact. Flat tire one year. Running out of gas another. A few crashes. A few brain locks, according to Earnhardt himself. Four second-place finishes.

As the 1998 Daytona 500 race approached, Earnhardt had not been racing very well. He had not won in 59 consecutive races. He was 46 years old. Questions were raised as to whether he would he ever win anything again, let alone the Daytona 500. Some reporters were saying that Earnhardt had lost his audacious nature, his leopard-like reflexes, his desire.

THE MOMENT
It's February 15, 1998. The stands are packed with nearly 185,000 people, many of whom cheer wildly for No. 3, their No. 3, Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt has been running strong out front virtually the entire race, and he is holding off challenge upon challenge as he attempts to end years of frustration and attain of his quest of winning Daytona.

On the next-to-last lap, there is a wreck on the backstretch, behind the leaders. That means the last lap is going to be run under caution and whoever crosses the finish line first on this 199th of 200 laps would win.

Cars congregate in a roaring mass behind Earnhardt, banging into each other, clawing and bucking to get to the front. But they can not. Not this time. Not on this day.

Suddenly, Bobby Labonte, the pole sitter, appears out of nowhere. For a moment, it looks like he may become the latest driver to frustrate Earnhardt's quest to win the Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader and Ernie Irvan also make bids to bury Earnhardt.

But none can. Earnhardt refuses to allow Labonte and the other challengers to overtake him, preventing them from making any maneuver to seize the lead.

"I wasn't thinking about what could happen," Earnhardt would later tell the media. "I was working to keep my car in front until somebody turned me over or we got to the finish line."

Finally, history happens. He crosses the finish line -- first. The crowd goes into hysterics.

The victory sends tremors of joy not only through the crowd, to Earnhardt's devoted throng of black-clad fans, but also through the teams that compete against him for years, the ones who have waged battle against him for decades.

After Earnhardt's victory lap, crew members from opposing teams surge over the pit wall, lining up, one after another, to reach out, to shake his hand and to pound the hood of his black Chevrolet as he drives slowly down pit road toward victory lane.

Earnhardt is so stunned, so touched, by the reaction of opposing teams, his eyes water up. "Daytona is ours! We won it!" he shouts with joy.

On his way to victory lane, Earnhardt joyfully spins his car on the infield grass. Magically, the tire tracks make a giant 3, Earnhardt's famous car number.

Fans race out to the track and pick up some of the grass and dirt that Earnhardt has knocked loose. They put it in their pockets, coolers and backpacks, saving and savoring a piece of the moment. Some even lay down in Earnhardt's tire tracks, to feel the place where he had driven. Some stand in the tracks and have their pictures taken.

Later, in the interview room, Earnhardt pulls a toy monkey out of his uniform shirt, throws it to the floor and shouts, "I finally got that monkey off my back!"