Winston Cup Scene
BY STEVE WAID
DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.
It evolved into a cloudy, gray day.
But for Dale Earnhardt, it was the brightest of his career. Who needed the sun?
At last ... at last.
In one of the most emotion-charged finishes in the history of Daytona, Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion whose racing achievements are the stuff of dreams, did something he hadn’t been able to do for 20 years.
He won the Daytona 500 - finally.
Now, as Earnhardt put it, "The monkey is off my back!" And he so exuberantly illustrated that fact by hurling a stuffed monkey across the press box.
With the victory. Earnhardt removed the one stigma of his celebrated career. No longer can it be said that Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history can’t win the Daytona 500.
And no longer will he be bothered by the question, “When will you win the Daytona 500?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” said an excited Earnhardt in victory lane. “Twenty years! Can you believe it!”
Believe it. After years in which Earnhardt lost the Daytona 500 in just about every way imaginable – out of gas here, a cut tire there, a missing lug nut over there – this time fate would not deny him.
Earnhardt, who has now won 31 races at Daytona including this first Daytona 500, also ended a 59-race losing streak and effectively hushed the talk that he could no longer drive 500 hard, competitive miles - talk that intensified after he mysteriously blacked out on the first lap of the Southern 500 at Darlington last year.
He was clearly the sentimental favorite in Daytona. Even those who do not count themselves among his fans said that if their chosen driver could not win, they wanted Earnhardt to win to end his years of futility.
And wouldn’t victory for the long-suffering Earnhardt be a perfect fit for NASCAR’s year-long 50th Anniversary celebration?
“This win is for all our fans and all the people who told me, ‘Dale, this is your year,’” Earnhardt said. “I mean, you can’t believe all the people who told me that, from the top to the bottom in the garage area. Team owners to crewmen. Bill France. Todd Parrott (Dale Jarrett’s crew chief).
“There was a lot of hard work that went into this and I have to thank every member of the Richard Childress Racing team. I have had a lot of great fans and people behind me all through the years and I just can’t thank them enough.
“The Daytona 500 is over. And we won it! We won it!”
But he very easily could have lost it - again -and if he had, it would have gone down as one of the most disappointing episodes of his career.
As it turned out, Earnhardt held off a furious attack from the likes of Jeremy Mayfield, Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte as the 200-lap race around the 2.5-mile Daytona track sped to its conclusion.
“My eyes watered up in the race car. I don’t think I really cried. My eyes just watered up on that lap to take the checkered. I knew I was going to win it then, no matter what. I knew I was going to win unless something happened to the car.” – Dale Earnhardt
Earnhardt, in a Chevrolet, was the race’s dominant figure. But as he himself will tell you, that’s never been enough in itself for him to win the Daytona 500. This time, it was.
Earnhardt, who led five times for 107 laps, more than any other driver, made a pass around teammate Mike Skinner on lap 140 to take the lead he would hold for the remainder of the race, although he certainly didn’t know it at the time.
On lap 174, the race’s second caution period began after Robert Pressley and John Andretti spun down the backstretch. One lap later, Earnhardt led the parade of leaders down pit road.
It was obvious that this would be the final stop and the leaders opted to make it as quick as possible. With the exception of Ernie Irvan, all took on right side tires only.
“We had learned from the 125-mile qualifying race that track position was very important,” said Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt’s crew chief who had won Daytona 500s in 1992 with Davey Allison and in 1996 with Jarrett. “We knew what all the other teams were thinking and to us, there was no question to go for just two tires. In fact, Goodyear brought such a good tire here we might have been OK if we just took gas.
“We knew it would take five or six seconds to take fuel and the guys made about an 8.5-second stop for tires and that let us get back out on the track first.”
“On the last stop, I was focused,” Earnhardt said. "I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong and that we got out quick. And we did.”
Earnhardt was followed by Skinner, Mayfield, Wallace and Jeff Gordon, the winner of the 1997 Daytona 500.
When the race restarted, there were just 12 laps to go. Earnhardt was in front with teammate Skinner behind him. That gave Earnhardt the ideal drafting partner and he would need it, because in third and fourth were Mayfield and Wallace, who became teammates in the Penske organization this season when Roger Penske became a partner with Michael Kranefuss on Mayfield’s team.
It was clear Earnhardt and Skinner would combine their forces to escape Mayfield and Wallace, if they could.
“Mike did help a tremendous amount on that last restart,” Earnhardt said. “I know he would have liked to have won this race as much as me.”
But the strategy was doomed. On lap 179, Skinner was pushed high out of the draft in turn one and that allowed Mayfield and Wallace, in Fords, to close on Earnhardt’s rear bumper. Gordon moved to fourth place and Skinner fought Labonte for fifth.
Five laps passed as Earnhardt, now on his own, eyed his rearview mirror and kept his foot in the throttle as the Penske Fords lurked just behind.
“I felt like I could do pretty good, but Jeremy and Rusty were hooked up good,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know, but I just felt like this was it.”
On lap 184, Gordon shot to the low side of Wallace in the first turn, but Wallace made a blocking move that broke his effort with Mayfield and allowed Earnhardt some precious space.
On lap 194, Gordon made another move. This time he went to the high side of the Fords ahead of him and split them, moving into third place behind Mayfield.
The running order stayed that way until lap 197, when Wallace shot by Gordon on the backstretch and once again united with his teammate.
Then, one lap later, pole-winner Labonte pushed his Pontiac to the high side and managed to clear Mayfield coming out of the fourth turn to move into second-place. As he did so, Gordon drifted back out of the melee, the victim of a dropped cylinder.
There were two laps remaining.
On lap 199, the race’s third and final caution period began when Andretti, Lake Speed and Jimmy Spencer tangled on the backstretch. When the leaders got back to the line, they would see the yellow and white flags fly simultaneously.
The first one to the flags would win the race.
Earnhardt gave it all he had. He was able to utilize the lapped Ford of Rick Mast as a pick and got a bit of a break as Labonte and Mayfield jostled each other for position.
He crossed the line ahead of them. And the grandstands erupted.
One last, comfortable, tension-free lap was all Earnhardt had left to make. With the checkered flag came the end of 19 years of frustration.
“It was my time. That’s all I can say. I’ve been passed here. I’ve run out of gas. I’ve been cut down with a tire. I’ve done it all. I wrote the book and this is the last chapter in this book. I’m going to start a new book next year. It’s over with. Every which way you can lose it, I’ve lost it. Now I’ve won it and I don’t care how I won it. We won it.” – Dale Earnhardt
“We worked awful hard and just kept playing our cards,” said Earnhardt, 46. “They’d go this way and I’d go with them or do what I thought was best. The years of experience helped me out there.
“I was hoping they would stay in line with about 10 to go or eight to go. It got down to five and they got to racing. They started dicing and that made me feel better. I could pick who I wanted to dice with as they were passing each other.
“When Bobby got in behind me, he was pretty much by himself. He didn’t have any help. And we had Rick’s lapped car there. I felt like I could hold him off.”
Earnhardt admitted he got emotional as he sped past the yellow and white flags.
“My eyes watered up in the race car,” he said. “I don’t think I really cried. My eyes just watered up on that lap to take the checkered. I knew I was going to win it then, no matter what. I knew I was going to win unless something happened to the car.
“I was driving slow down the backstretch and I said, ‘I want to go fast. I don’t want to go slow. I want to get back around there.’ I took off, came back around, took the checkered and really got excited.”
By his own admission, what happened next will be forever etched in Earnhardt’s memory. As he made his way down pit road toward victory lane, he was met by crew members from virtually every team in the Daytona 500, all of whom wanted to congratulate him for his victory.
“I sorta expected a few of them to come out there, but not as many as there were,” Earnhardt said. “All the guys came up congratulating me, all of them wanting to shake my hand or give me high-fives, thumbs-up. There was Michael Waltrip, Rusty ... I had to go real slow or my arm would’ve gotten torn off.”
As if to display his excitement to the fans, Earnhardt sped off pit road, into the grass and cut doughnuts with his spinning tires. Later, fans would retrieve chunks of the torn-up sod for souvenirs.
The victory was worth $1,059,105 to Earnhardt and marked the first time in Winston Cup racing the winner’s share of the purse was over $1 million. He won with an average speed of 172.712 mph, the third-fastest race in Daytona 500 history.
“I had confidence in myself, the team and everybody,” Earnhardt said. “People say, ‘Did you hear things? Did you wonder who was going to pass?’ I was working to keep the race car out in front. I was working to do that until somebody turned me over or we got to the finish.
“I wasn’t thinking about what could happen. I was thinking about what I was doing and focused on what I had to do.”
Labonte wound up second, Mayfield third and Ken Schrader, broken sternum and all, came home fourth. Wallace was fifth, with Ernie Irvan sixth, Chad Little seventh, Skinner eighth, Michael Waltrip ninth and Bill Elliott 10th.
Earnhardt now is eligible for a $1 million bonus from Winston in the No Bull 5 program. He joined the other top-five finishers, Labonte, Mayfield, Schrader and Wallace, as candidates for the reward if any one of them can win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on May 24.
While Earnhardt would be the first to tell you he wouldn’t turn down a $1 million bonus, he’s out for greater rewards.
“Another championship is going to make it complete,” he said. “Honestly, I’m telling you this and not because we won the race, but because we’ve got a race team. We have guys who are ready to win races. We are going to concentrate on winning the eighth championship.”
And now, there is no longer any need to concentrate on that first Daytona 500 win after coming so excruciatingly close over the years. Earnhardt ran out of gas to lose to Geoff Bodine in 1986. Then there was the now-famous cut tire on the last lap in 1990 that passed the win to Derrike Cope. Three times in the last five years he has finished second.
Today, he was second to no one.
“It was my time,” Earnhardt said. “That’s all I can say. I’ve been passed here. I’ve run out of gas. I’ve been cut down with a tire. I’ve done it all.
“I wrote the book and this is the last chapter in this book. I’m going to start a new book next year. It’s over with.
“Every which way you can lose it, I’ve lost it. Now I’ve won it and I don’t care how I won it. We won it.”
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