No. 3 most memorable Daytona 500: Dale gets his
No. 3 most memorable Daytona 500: 1998.
Dale Earnhardt entered the 1998 season on the biggest down slide of his career. He had gone 59 consecutive races, almost two full seasons, without winning a Winston Cup race. And he was 46 years old.
• Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident.
• Titanic becomes the highest grossing film of all time at $580 million domestic earnings.
• Frank Sinatra died at age 82.
• A gallon of gas was $1.15.
• A postage stamp cost 32 cents.
• Average cost of a new car was $17,200.
• Average income was $38,100.
-- Terry Blount
Maybe Father Time finally had caught up with The Intimidator. That's what some people were saying as Earnhardt prepared to compete in his 20th Daytona 500.
The seven-time Cup champion was in danger of ending his career without winning the big one. He was 0-for-19 in NASCAR's premier event.
But all those years of misfortune finally ended on an afternoon when Earnhardt proved he still had what it takes to win at the highest level.
That joyous day ranks No. 3 on our list of most memorable moments in Daytona 500 history.
No one visited Victory Lane at Daytona more than Earnhardt. He won 11 Daytona 500 qualifying races, two Pepsi 400s, seven Daytona Busch events, six Bud Shootouts and six IROC events on the 2.5-mile oval.
But everything that could go wrong did go wrong when a Daytona 500 victory was within his grasp. Earnhardt had led the race in 17 of his previous 19 starts, finishing second four times.
Maybe the most painful loss came in 1990. Earnhardt appeared to have the race won on the last lap. No one was close enough to challenge him as he headed into Turn 3. Then it happened.
Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevy cut a tire and began slowing down. Derrike Cope, way back in second place, zoomed by to earn his first career victory and the most surprising upset in race history.
"I told people that those things didn't bother me," Earnhardt said after finally winning it. "I lied. You don't come that close to winning the Daytona 500 and not feel it. It hurt."
Earnhardt knew he had a good car in 1998 after winning his qualifying race, but he had done that many times before without finishing first three days later.
The morning before the race, Earnhardt made his usual rounds in the garage area when he saw a young girl in a wheelchair. Earnhardt knelt down to talk to her when the girl pulled out a penny.
She told him she had been saving it for him. It was a lucky penny that would help him win the race. Earnhardt hugged her and took the penny. After the introductions, he walked to his car and taped the penny to his dashboard.
Earnhardt was near the front for most of the race. He led 34 of the first 58 laps, then fell back briefly with handling problems and Jeff Gordon went to the front.
Earnhardt passed teammate Mike Skinner on Lap 140 and led the rest of the way. Bobby Labonte, who started on the pole, tried to go around Earnhardt several times in the final laps, but couldn't find an opening.
With two laps to go, a wreck involving Lake Speed, John Andretti and Jimmy Spencer brought out a caution. At that time, NASCAR still was racing back to the flag, so Earnhardt only had to stay in front a little longer. There wasn't the two-lap overtime that NASCAR has now. When Earnhardt crossed the line in front with one lap to go, he knew he was the winner.
"I'll admit it," Earnhardt said afterward. "My eyes watered up in the race car coming to take the checkered. It's something I've always wondered what it might feel like."
It was the shining moment for NASCAR's ultimate hero, a celebration that everyone shared.
After Earnhardt made his victory lap, he slowly started down pit road. Almost every crew member for every team stepped out to greet him and shake his hand as he slowly drove by.
"I'm excited for him," Gordon said that day. "He got the lead when he needed to, and from then on, he controlled the race. As many times as he's been so close, he deserves it."
Earnhardt's winning purse of $1,059,150 was the first time a Daytona 500 winner had earned more than $1 million.
It truly was a million-dollar moment. One million and one lucky penny.
"Twenty years," Earnhardt said. "Can you believe it? I finally got that monkey off my back."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Gibbs beats buzzer as Seton Hall stuns Nova
- Redskins sign Hatcher away from Cowboys
- Sources: Pats' Wilfork asks team for release
- KU edges Okla. St. in OT behind Wiggins' 30