Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February 15, 1998: A 20-year wait

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It was a poignant scene. Dale Earnhardt, slowly driving down pit row, giving high fives, while pit crew members stood by the wall to congratulate him. Not just his pit crew members, mind you, but every member of every team was standing along that wall, congratulating and honoring The Intimidator.

To the uninitiated, it might seem strange to see rival teams congratulating a man they had just spent 200 laps trying to beat, but that doesn't explain the respect that everybody involved in NASCAR had for Earnhardt. The man had been unquestionably the best driver for two decades, having won seven championships and 76 races in his career, but he had never won the big one. In two decades of greatness, he had never won the Daytona 500.

Until now.

The 1998 race was one of the cleanest Daytona 500s in memory. There were only three cautions all race, and all were for minor incidents. In fact, no driver had to leave the race for crash-related reasons. Because of this, it was the third-fastest Daytona on record, despite being run in the restrictor-plate era.

Bobby Labonte started the race on the pole but soon gave up his lead to Jeff Gordon, who kept the lead through the early portions and through the first caution. As the drivers went to the pits during the second caution, and Earnhardt came out in first place, and he stayed at or near the front for the rest of the race.

As Earnhardt was driving in lap 198, he was trying to hold off Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield. With two turns to go in the lap, there was a spin-out behind the leaders, and the caution flag came out. This meant that, suddenly, the car in the lead the next time they crossed the finish line would be the winner, as the race would end under caution. The three leaders came upon a lapped car; Earnhardt easily passed the lapped car on the outside, but Mayfield went inside, losing Earnhardt's draft. That gave Earnhardt the edge needed to hold off and claim the long-elusive Daytona 500.

The normal emotions of competition went by the wayside as Earnhardt earned the checkered flag. Race announcers didn't hide their pleasure and joy that The Intimidator had finally won. The scene with the rival pit crew members congratulating Earnhardt brought chills to most race fans.

Earnhardt never won another Daytona 500, but it didn't matter. To him, and to many race fans, his victory in NASCAR's most prestigious race was the feather in the cap of his great career.

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