Commentary

Years of frustration finally added up to Earnhardt's Daytona 500 win

Dale Earnhardt had found just about every way there was to lose the Daytona 500. Then came 1998, and it finally all came together for the Man In Black, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: January 28, 2008, 1:35 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

"Y'all mind if I take spin through your grass here?"

The voice that crackled over the radio and into NASCAR's race control box high atop Daytona International Speedway was unmistakably that of Dale Earnhardt. The same Dale Earnhardt who had just won the Daytona 500 … finally won the Daytona 500.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
RacingOne/Getty ImagesIt was a long wait for the Intimidator, but 1998 finally saw the seven-time Cup champion win NASCAR's signature event.

For two decades, racing's biggest star had failed miserably at winning NASCAR's biggest race. He'd lost by running out of gas, lost while leading in the final turn, and lost by pit strategy, by poor timing and by simply being outrun.

The 19-race losing streak had started with a stunning eighth-place debut on Feb. 18, 1979. He'd arrived at the beach looking as though he'd slept beneath the grandstands, along with a ragged bunch of dirt-faced crewmen pieced together by West Coast car owner Rod Osterlund. His crew chief, Doug Richert, was still a teenager, and his No. 2 Buick was one of only nine of the 41 cars entered without a sponsor on the hood. While the famous finish and fight took place among the superstars of racing, the 28-year-old short tracker quietly started 10th and finished eighth.

"I never raced so damn hard in my life than I did that day," Earnhardt recalled nearly two decades later. "I wanted so badly for those guys to believe that I truly belonged to be out there with them."

Later that season, he earned his place by netting his first win, then clinching Rookie of the Year. Earning his place at Daytona would prove to be a much steeper climb.

He finished fourth in 1980, fifth in '81, but ended the next two 500s early with expired engines. In '84, he finished second to Cale Yarborough. In '86, his eighth try, he rolled snake eyes on fuel strategy and slid helplessly through the pits as eventual archenemy Geoff Bodine took the victory.

From there on, the same maddening pattern began to repeat itself each and every February, like some sort of cruel racing version of "Groundhog Day." Earnhardt would win everything Speedweeks had to offer -- the Busch Clash all-star event, Busch Series race, Twin 125 qualifier, even the IROC race -- only to fall short on the big stage.

"The longer we went not winning it, the more the talk about a jinx got going," said Kirk Shelmerdine, Earnhardt's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing from '84 to '92. "We were the most successful bunch of jinxed guys there's ever been. We won everything they had to win down there for about 10 years. Well, almost everything."

In all, Earnhardt's first 19 Speedweeks produced a mind-boggling 27 race wins, but he was still batting .000 in the Great American Race. In the 500, he'd piled up 14 top-10 finishes, 10 of which were top-5s. Most excruciating were the four second-place efforts, including three in four years from '93 to '96. The first of those runner-ups came to start-up team Joe Gibbs Racing and its little-heralded also-ran driver Dale Jarrett. In '95, Earnhardt wasn't able to chase down another suddenly unstoppable journeyman, Sterling Marlin. And one year later, he again finished second to Jarrett, who was behind the wheel of yet another brand-new team, the No. 88 of Robert Yates Racing.

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"I still haven't won the Daytona 500!" He announced to the assembled media in '95, laughing to mask the pain. "And I ain't going to Disney World, neither!"

When The Intimidator arrived at the "World Center of Racing" for the 20th time, it was the first time in years that he hadn't rolled into town as the prohibitive favorite to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy. One year earlier, he'd played chicken with Jeff Gordon rolling off Turn 3 and lost badly, ending up on his roof and spinning helplessly down the backstretch. Although his decision to ditch the ambulance and drive his wrecked car back to pit road had been one of his all-time Man in Black moments, the image of the smashed No. 3 Chevy also become the symbol of the longest winless drought of his Cup career. After winning two of the first four races of 1996, he hadn't won since, a streak of 0-for-59.

"Dale had been hurt, and we were going through some changes at RCR, some growth things," Childress recalled. "He actually came to me in the middle of it all and suggested that I start looking for another driver. He thought he was holding us back. I told him to stop talking like that. I told him that he was my driver and we'd work through this just like we always had when times were tough. He just looked me in the eye that winter and said, 'You know what, I'm going to win the Daytona 500, you watch.' "

On Feb. 15, 1998, Childress was watching, as he always does, while pacing between the pits and the garage area. Earnhardt once again had won his 125 qualifier on Thursday -- his ninth in a row -- and started fourth. By the midpoint of the race, he was stinking up the show, surging into the lead and refusing to let anyone else have a peek. Again his biggest threat was Gordon, but the defending race champ was muzzled by pit problems and out of contention as the checkered flag grew closer.

As the laps ticked away, Childress and still-new crew chief Larry McReynolds said nothing over the radio, settling for the dual role of nerve piles as Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, and old nemeses Rusty Wallace and Kenny Schrader mounted challenge after challenge.

As the spotter clicked in occasionally to say, "5 to go, Dale … 4 to go, Dale … 3 to go, buddy …" the track grew eerily quiet. The Daytona grandstand had always been openly pro-Intimidator, and now fans stood and waited for the worst to happen. Another crash.

Richard Childress

Dale had been hurt, and we were going through some changes at RCR, some growth things. He actually came to me in the middle of it all and suggested that I start looking for another driver. He thought he was holding us back. I told him to stop talking like that. I told him that he was my driver and we'd work through this just like we always had when times were tough. He just looked me in the eye that winter and said, 'You know what, I'm going to win the Daytona 500, you watch.'

-- Richard Childress

Another cut tire. Heck, a meteorite blowing a giant hole into Turn 3. Anything.

What happened was a spin on the backstretch with two laps remaining, well behind Earnhardt and Labonte. The caution lights came on, but in these days before yellow froze the field, there was a mad dash back to the start/finish line. Earnhardt took one glance in his rearview mirror, then looked directly ahead to the lapped car of Rick Mast.

"I saw them coming," Mast said now. "And I swear I tried to get out of the way. But to this day, people accuse me of setting a pick for Dale. Hell, I'm just happy to be in the photo of the finish."

Earnhardt took the yellow and white simultaneously and kept the throttle open nearly all the way around to take the checkers.

"I wanted to get back around as quick as I could," he recalled with a smile one year later. "You know, in case something happened."

That victory lap that followed was filled with waves from rivals, tear-choked congratulations from McReynolds and Childress over the radio, and a 42-team conga line of high fives from one end of pit road to the other. As he reached the end of the congratulators, the champ radioed up to the tower.

"Y'all mind if I take spin through your grass here?"

Problem was the request could barely be heard over the shouts of joy from the officials in race control. Men who were supposed to be impartial, emotionally disconnected from what happened beneath them on the racetrack. But here, at the end of the first race of NASCAR's 50th anniversary season, it was OK to be happy. It was OK to exhale. And yes, it was OK to ruin the grass.

"Hell yes."

"Thank you."

Ryan McGee, a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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