sports 3 days ago

2 decades later, Earnhardt's Daytona 500 victory still landmark moment

The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. — Ken Willis The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Feb. 13--There's not much debate about where it ranks in NASCAR history. If not at the top, it's damn near.

But you can surely draw debate about the defining moment of Dale Earnhardt's long-awaited Daytona 500 victory, which came 20 years ago this week.

Nearly everyone, and probably rightly so, points to the reception "The Intimidator" received from every member of every crew as he pulled down the pit lane after the cool-down lap. It was a pure and amazing moment.

But a few minutes later, after he'd climbed from his car, stood atop the roof in arms-raised glory, then trundled back down to the ground of Victory Lane ... to some, that's when Dale Earnhardt truly let the world know exactly what the Daytona 500 meant to the baddest bad-ass in NASCAR history.

Half-listening to a question from his television interviewer, Dale Earnhardt glanced in the general direction of his questioner with a smile no one had ever seen -- it was equal parts real-life joy and something you'd carve in stone.

Right then, at that moment, even at age 46, after ruling over the NASCAR landscape like Caesar, the little boy came out. It came after a few comments thanking the fans and his team, just as he slapped the top of his car twice.

"The Daytona 500 is ours," he said. "We won it, we won it, we won it."

In retrospect, without context, it looks like so many other Victory Lane moments, from Darlington to Pocono to Talladega.

But with context ...

Man oh man, with context ...

'Ain't supposed to win'

Just three years earlier, Sterling Marlin won the 1995 Daytona 500 -- repeating his win from '94. Earnhardt, who'd rallied on fresh tires from 14th to Marlin's bumper in the closing 10 laps, was better than all but one car that day.

Marlin, on old tires, seemed like a sitting duck, but Earnhardt couldn't pass him.

"This is the Daytona 500," an irritated Earnhardt said afterward. "I ain't supposed to win the damn thing."

He'd been beaten by fuel mileage. He'd been beaten by "The Big One," one of those classic Daytona multi-car crashes that are easy to predict but hard to avoid. Once, a seagull on the backstretch met a grisly end, wedged (in part) onto the front of Earnhardt's radiator, leaving the famed No. 3 team to battle overheating issues the rest of the day.

The worst was 1990, when he won the "Daytona 499 1/2 " before a cut tire sent him out of the way while Derrike Cope snagged the highly improbable win.

He'd tried 19 times, 14 times in the No. 3 of Richard Childress Racing, and nearly every time he was the man to beat, with the car to beat. He'd literally won everything else available at Daytona -- the July 400-miler, a bunch of 125-mile qualifiers, IROC races, several Saturday Busch Series races, the Clash ... everything but the 500, a race he revered because he grew up a second-generation southern racer and the Daytona 500 was the big prize to racers of his ilk.

All of it was swept away on Feb. 15, 1998. Twenty years can dull things, but it seemed that even the Earnhardt detractors (remember, half the grandstands booed him) were happy for him. They had other favorite drivers, and most of those other favorites, at one time or another, had "issues" with the black No. 3 car. But there was respect, perhaps begrudging in places, and it seemed fitting, even to them, that Earnhardt finally got the one he wanted most of all.

"Every man on every crew has come out to the edge of pit lane," blurted CBS broadcaster Mike Joy, unable to hide his amazement at the scene.

In a booth near Joy and his broadcast crew, the NASCAR management team overlooked the scene. Impartial, at least in theory, but human. They knew what was happening, and 20 years later still feel it. Mike Helton, current NASCAR vice chairman, was the vice president in 1998, overseeing the competition side on a daily basis.

He might not have been able to fully grasp the moment at that exact moment, but 20 years later, he sure can.

"Whatever sport it is, there are iconic photographs or video clips," he says. "You didn't necessarily have to see the whole event. It's a blocked shot on the basketball court. It's a finger-tip catch in the end zone.

"The photograph of that 3 car going down pit road, and every working man on pit road standing in that line to congratulate him, is one of those iconic moments. For people who don't even follow NASCAR, that's their interpretation of that family bond that this sport celebrates. That'll be true a hundred years from now."

Been here before

Helton laughs at what they were all thinking on the final lap of that Daytona 500.

Sure, it all seems so uneventful now. Earnhardt had taken the lead on Lap 140 and was still ahead of Bobby Labonte on Lap 199, and as they headed down the backstretch, with just 1 1/2 laps remaining, Lake Speed and John Andretti wrecked behind them. The yellow caution flag was waved, but in those days, drivers raced back to the line before slowing to caution speed.

Earnhardt had to keep the lead to the end of Lap 199, which he did, then could coast on the final lap and bask in the glory and relief of it all. Which he did, but given all that had happened to him here before ... well, Helton laughs about it now.

"He still had to turn that caution lap," he said. "I know they were holding their breath down there in his pits."

Not like they were moments earlier.

With about five laps remaining and Earnhardt, yet again, dominant at Daytona, crew chief Larry McReynolds turned to Childress and said, "Whaddaya think?"

The team owner simply said, "I've been here before."

Yes, been there before. Dominant. Rolling through Speedweeks, often leaving the car covered in the garage while others participated in the week's final practice before the big race. Confidence. But always shattered. Often cruelly. And here they'd set themselves up again.

"We put so much into it every year, worked so hard coming to Daytona, making sure we had our cars like we wanted them," Childress recalled. "We started on our car in August or September, worked on it all winter. Dave Marcis tested it three or four times for us.

"When Dale got in, he knew he had a horse. Knew it handled good and had a lot of speed. We'd beaten ourselves a couple of times. Old Lady Luck got us a couple of times. That day, it all finally worked out."

Guy on the box

McReynolds was an established crew chief. He'd won races with Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan and others. But with Earnhardt, there were no wins in 1997. Three months into the 1998 season, Childress would swap crew chiefs among his two teams, sending McReynolds to work with Mike Skinner and bringing Kevin Hamlin from Skinner to Earnhardt.

But that one day in February, a highlight for the ages. And McReynolds talks of a rather heartwarming aspect of that Daytona 500.

"It's very flattering, even today, 20 years later," he said, "when fans come up to me and thank me for helping to give Dale that win. It's very flattering.

"I just happened to be the guy on top of that box when it all came together -- when they didn't have a flat tire on the last lap, didn't run out of fuel, didn't hit a seagull on the backstretch, the engine didn't go sour. I just happened to be the guy fortunate enough to be in place."

Twenty years now

Just as he'd likely draw it up, that day practically never ended for Earnhardt. After the procession on Pit Road, he turned his car to the right and did a looping power slide through the Daytona grass, roughly forming, by chance, a number 3 in the turf.

Then Victory Lane.

"Thank the good Lord for a good day. This race car did everything. The good Lord looked after it all day long. This is for all those race fans and people who been saying, 'Dale, this is your year, this is your year.'

"Boy, a lot of 'em said it this year. The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it, we won it, we won it."

Then upstairs in the grandstands to the press box for the official winner's interview.

There, he could look down to the track and, just beyond the asphalt, between the tri-oval and pits. On the grass, hundreds of Earnhardt fans remained, staring up at their man, who smiled broadly and waved back. That, too, had never happened before. Not even close.

It didn't end there.

"We celebrated quite a bit," Childress said. "Smoked cigars. Champagne. Went up to the Frances' suite and the Unocal suite. We knew it was a big win."

The next year at Daytona, Earnhardt was "back in form," finishing a tenth of a second behind winner Jeff Gordon. The next year, he never led a lap and finished a disappointing 21st.

All of the previous heartbreaks were put in tragic perspective in 2001, when Earnhardt didn't survive a last-lap crash while running third behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Everyone, naturally, prefers to dwell on 1998, even if it reminds them of the rapid passing of time.

"No, hell no, it doesn't even seem close to being 20 years ago," said Childress, the one man from that day who's still competing to win another Daytona 500.

"How's that old Bob Seger song go? 'Twenty years now, where'd they go?'"

___

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