The following is excerpted from "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story" by ESPN.
CHAPTER SEVEN: DAYTONA
People always wanted to take Dale Earnhardt back in time, to the Alamo or the O.K. Corral, some frontier outpost where he would coolly gun down everyone in his path. And why not? He looked the part with those steely blue eyes, brushy mustache and sun-baked leather skin.
"I always said he looked like the last Confederate soldier," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler. "He looked like one of those guys in the old silver photos from Gettysburg or Manassas. Like he would have been much more comfortable out in the wilderness somewhere looking for a bad guy to shoot."
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In 1990, ESPN convinced The Man in Black to don cowboy duds for a promotional shoot in the red rock desert of Arizona. When Earnhardt came walking through the dust to meet rival Mark Martin in a High Noon showdown, the TV crew fell silent. "Damn," remarked a cameraman. "He looks like he's done this before."
He had. Every February of his adult life. With an itchy trigger finger twitching above his holster, he returned each winter to stare down his nemesis, the Daytona 500. And each winter for nearly two decades, Daytona won the duel.
"It was unbelievable," racer-turned-analyst Benny Parsons says. "If you had written the story of Dale and the Daytona 500 and taken it to Hollywood, they would have laughed you out of town and said, 'Get outta here! No one is going to buy into this story. No one has this much bad luck!'"
Between 1979 and 1997, Earnhardt took the green flag in the Great American Race nineteen times, almost always as the heavy favorite. Nineteen times he came up empty. With each loss, there seemed to be one more camera and one more reporter at the finish waiting to ask him the same questions: "What happened? Are you disappointed? Are you ever going to win the big one?" In time, the mob swelled into an army. To address them all, Earnhardt had to climb on top of a toolbox. He smiled a little bigger and shrugged his shoulders a little higher each year, but no one was buying the act.
He was hurting inside.
In 1986, he was in perfect position to slingshot past Geoff Bodine for the win when his gas tank ran dry with three laps to go.
In 1990, he entered Turn 3 on the final lap with the lead. In the blink of an eye, his right rear tire ruptured, crippling his Chevy and handing the win to Derrike Cope.
In 1993 and 1996, Earnhardt succumbed to closing lap passes by Dale Jarrett. In 1995, he made a mad dash from thirteenth to second in thirteen laps, only to fall a car short to Sterling Marlin. In 1997, car number 3 rolled side over side exiting Turn 2.
"I've still never won the Daytona 500," Earnhardt exclaimed to the sea of scribes. "And I ain't going to Disney World, either!"
During those first nineteen trips, he led the way for at least one lap in all but two races. He finished inside the top ten fourteen times, four as the runner-up. The saga of his losing streak was so gripping it overshadowed the multiple wins of Jarrett and Marlin. Ultimately, it did not matter where Earnhardt placed: From second to thirty-first, his disappointment was the story.
"Dad would come down here and just win everything," Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembered after claiming his 500 victory in 2004 on his fifth try. "He would win the Busch Clash, the pole for the 500, a Twin 125 qualifying race, the IROC race, the Busch Series race on Saturday and then something would always happen on Sunday. Always."
The Man in Black forced the old speedway to blink thirty-four times in his career. Thirty-two of those victories were logged during February's Speedweeks -- a record of domination that made his struggles in the 500 all the more baffling ... and the events of February 15, 1998 so much more special.
By Intimidator standards, that trip to Daytona was a quiet walk on the beach. Earnhardt had won a Twin 125 qualifier on Thursday -- his ninth in a row. At a reception honoring the fifty greatest drivers in NASCAR history, he swapped stories with seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty, four-time winner Cale Yarborough and nearly every living winner of his sport's biggest race. When asked about having to defend his oh-for-life record in front of the endless ribbing from Buddy Baker and Darrell Waltrip, who had snapped lengthy droughts of their own in '80 and '89, Earnhardt said: "It just makes me want to go out there and dominate on Sunday. Then we'll have to get all these guys back together again next year so I can bring my trophy with me and polish it up in front of them."