An Earnhardt Kind of Day ~ Reprise
I bid you welcome gentle readers and a most cordial “Hey there” to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR on this fine day. After watching a TV special on the 1998 Daytona 500, I was asked by one of our writers here at Race Fans Forever about something that seemingly was left out. I offer this recap of the race on its own merit. Both race and postrace are exactly as it happened. This was one day that definitely provided a happy ending.
The date was February 15, 1998. The place was Daytona International Speedway and the event was the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. The day dawned with threatening dark clouds, a chilling wind and a weather forecast that called for rain. Still, excitement was running high as the new season prepared to get underway. After all, no Daytona 500 had ever been rained out on its given Sunday and the racing world hoped that “Bill France weather” would prevail for this one as well.
Back then, a perennial question had become very much a part of the ceremonies surrounding the race. “Can the Intimidator finally win the Daytona 500?” This race marked the fortieth running of Big Bill France’s dream race and it would chronicle the twentieth attempt by the “Man in Black” to conquer the giant Superspeedway in the biggest race of all.
Dale Earnhardt had won everything there was to win at Daytona; Busch races, Busch Clashes, IROC races, Firecracker 400s and was still on an incredible streak of winning a 125-mile qualifier race every year in the decade of the 1990s. Still, this master of the draft, the man that everyone said could “see the wind” had never taken home the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Over his twenty-year career, he had found many creative but frustrating ways of losing in the closing laps; flat tires, running out of gas, being caught up in someone else’s wreck (which once put him upside down on the track) and probably the most creative way of all, by scooping up a seagull with his grill and overheating the engine.
It was no surprise then, that the media was fascinated by the fact that the seven-time Champion had never taken the checkers in the spring at what admittedly was his best track. On this particular Sunday, when interviewed from the seat of his G M Goodwrench Chevy before the race, the same old hackneyed question was trotted out one more time. “Do you think you can win it today, Dale?” Earnhardt’s response was accompanied by a hard and steely stare as he said; “Everyone saw the look in John Elway’s eyes.”(Denver Broncos quarterback and Super Bowl winner the preceding week) “Look into mine!”
When the green flag waved, it was the brothers Labonte on the front row, Bobby on the inside and Terry on the outside. Behind them were Sterling Marlin in third place and Dale Earnhardt in fourth. The early advantage went to Bobby, and he held it for thirteen laps while the field sorted itself out behind him. On lap 14, Marlin got around the #18 to claim five bonus points for leading the race. Four laps later, the Goodwrench Chevy put its nose out front, followed closely by Labonte, Marlin, Derrike Cope, Terry Labonte and Mike Skinner, teammate to Earnhardt.
At lap 36, we saw Bobby and Dale scrap for the lead, with Bobby eventually taking it back. Shortly after that, big brother Terry slid up into Mike Skinner, with the light contact causing Skinner to brush the wall. Everyone kept going and Skinner’s Lowe’s Chevy seemed no worse for the wear. As is the way of restrictor plate races, they continued to swap positions all through the field for several more laps.
At around lap 50, the first round of pit stops started, under the green flag. At lap 57, the front-runners came to pit road as a group and it became a matter of whose crew was the fastest. When they had all cycled through the pits, the front of the pack showed Jeff Gordon with the lead, followed by Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin. It took only a few laps for the rest of the pack to get back in contact with the lead pack and soon there were over twenty cars in the lead draft, all wanting to be first.
Sterling Marlin had suffered a disastrously slow pit stop that left him running alone on the track. By lap 72, the pack had caught him and by lap 77, Marlin became lapped traffic. The running order then was Gordon, followed by Wallace, Martin, Earnhardt, Chad Little, Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield and Cope. After that, things settled down some, at least at the front of the pack. At the halfway point in the race, it was still Gordon leading Wallace, Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte, Mayfield and Martin, and the sun was shining.
Four laps past the halfway flag, Ernie Irvan began the second round of green flag stops and by lap 106, the top fifteen cars once more came to pit road together. That would prove to be ill advised for at least a couple of them. As Dale Jarrett was pulling out of his pit, he swung wide to avoid Mark Martin, who was also pulling out of his. That move by Jarrett took him directly into the side of Geoff Bodine’s car as he was entering the pits. Jarrett’s car spun 180º, leaving it with a lot of evident damage and facing the wrong way on pit road. Behind all that (and probably because of it) Jeff Burton was rear-ended by a then-unknown car and wound up looking back at where he had come from, just as Jarrett had. The next lap found Jarrett back in the pits to repair what damage could be fixed. (There was no caution flag thrown for all of that)
Just about that time, word came that Jeff Gordon smelled something like burning rubber inside his Chevy. Crew Chief, Ray Evernham calmed his young driver and assured him that it was not the #24 that was smoking. At that time, he was leading a four-car breakaway from the pack that included Wallace, Earnhardt and Mayfield.
Lap 117 cleared up the mystery of which car had gotten into Jeff Burton on pit road, when Derrike Cope brought the #30 to pit road for repairs to a damaged right front fender.
At lap 122, Earnhardt passed Gordon for the lead, bringing Wallace and Mayfield through with him. Two laps later, Ward Burton blew a tire, and as he brought his smoking Caterpillar car to the apron, the first caution flag of the day flew for debris from the #22. At the same time, Mark Martin was pushed behind the wall for repairs to the car’s rear end gear. That is more than likely what young Gordon had smelled earlier.
When they restarted at lap 130, the running order at the front was Wallace, Earnhardt, Gordon, Skinner and Bobby Labonte. It didn’t even take a lap before Skinner lined up behind Earnhardt and bump drafted his teammate back into the lead. Behind them, it was the usual three and four-wide racing that is restrictor plate racing, especially at a restart.
It took about three laps to get the front of the field sorted out, but when they settled in, it was Earnhardt leading Skinner, Irvan, Ken Schrader and Jeff Gordon. At this point, I should mention that this race carried a chance for any of five drivers to win a $1 million dollar bonus for winning, and two of them were Irvan and Schrader. Kenny’s run was quite spectacular in its own right. A hard crash into the wall during Thursday’s 125-mile qualifying race had left him with a cracked sternum. He was wearing a bull-riders flack-jacket under his uniform, along with a TENS device (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator) strapped across his chest.
At lap 142, Mark Martin rejoined the race, but at a slow pace. Lap 150 showed eighteen cars remaining on the lead lap, with a seven-car breakaway for the lead, comprised of Earnhardt, Irvan, Mayfield, Wallace, Gordon, Skinner and Schrader.
Lap 162 saw both Jeff Burton and Steve Park succumbing to engine problems and heading to the garage. At this point, the cloud cover was back over the track and it looked as if it might rain at any minute. All of the crew chiefs for the lead cars had been discussing when to bring their drivers to pit road, making deals about who would pit with whom. When John Andretti slid up into Robert Pressley, spinning both cars and bringing out the second caution of the day, all of the guesswork stopped. Every car on the lead lap came into the pits on lap 174, and almost to a man, took right side tires and one can of fuel.
The restart on lap 178 saw Earnhardt still in the lead, followed by Skinner, Mayfield, Wallace, Gordon and Bobby Labonte. Once again, Skinner bump-drafted Earnhardt past the lapped traffic in the inside lane, but in doing so allowed the two Penske Fords to get by him on the track.
With twenty laps to go, the tension was about as thick as blackstrap molasses and building quickly. There was some 190mph bumping going on right behind Earnhardt and behind that was a four-wide snarling mass of rolling sheet metal, all of which wanted to occupy the same space. With ten laps to go, it was still the Goodwrench colors on the point, with the two Penske blue cars right behind.
With eight laps to go, Bobby Labonte entered the fray, dicing hard with Mayfield for second place while behind that, cars were everywhere on the track and positions changed several times in a single lap. At four laps to go, though every seat in the house had been sold, there was not one of them being occupied.
At three laps ‘til the end, Jeff Gordon’s car slowed markedly and fell to the rear of the pack. Bobby Labonte finally got around Jeremy Mayfield for second and Jimmy Spencer kissed the wall. With two laps to go, John Andretti slid up into Lake Speed, sending both cars around and bringing out the caution flag that would end the race.
At the flag, it was Dale Earnhardt in front, followed by Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader (cracked sternum and all), Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Mike Skinner, Michael Waltrip and Bill Elliott.
After following the pace car for the final lap, to complete the prescribed distance of 500 miles, Dale Earnhardt became the official winner of the Daytona 500, the Great American Race. Pandemonium broke out in the stands but it was no match for the joy and tears in the #3 pit. Probably the most memorable thing was the sight of [Gasman] Danny “Chocolate” Myers, that great bear of a man with the heart of a pussycat, with unabashed tears streaming down his face as he grinned from ear to ear.
Once the cars had completed the mandatory spoiler check, we watched something that had never been seen before, nor will it probably ever be repeated. As the G M Goodwrench #3 car slowly made its way to Victory Lane, every crewmember, from every team, and every NASCAR official in the pits formed a reception line to greet the winner and shake his hand.
It took a long time, but Dale didn’t miss a hand as his car slowly crept through that line, graciously accepting the accolades and warmth offered by his competitors like the true Champion that he was. Upon finally reaching the end of the line of well-wishers, he swung the car out onto the infield grass and cut a perfect #3 in Bill France’s landscaping before proceeding through a gathering throng of fans to Victory Lane.
Once in Victory Lane, it was a gala celebration to behold. Dale, even at age 46, sprang out of the car and onto its roof, holding up two arms in victory, and then playfully spraying the crowd with Coke. Once he was back on the ground, there were hugs from everyone that could reach him; Teresa (his wife), Richard Childress (car owner) Ken Squier (interviewing announcer), Chocolate Myers (gasman) all the rest of the Goodwrench crew and most, if not all, of the drivers he had just bested on the track. To a man, they felt that if they couldn’t be the one to win on that day, there was no more deserving winner than the “Man in Black”, who had driven so hard for so many years to stand victorious in the Great American Race. Dale Earnhardt had won the Daytona 500!
In the end, it had been a great race and a safe race. There was no “Big One” that day, with only three caution flags; one for debris and two for John Andretti, who admittedly did not have a good afternoon. Your reporter must admit that the first time, watching the race live from my living room, I watched the ending through a flood of happy tears. That particular tape is undoubtedly the most worn of my collection, since it has always given me so much pleasure. I hope that I’ve been able to impart some of the excitement and joy of that day to all of you as well.
There’s no “official” Classic Country Closeout today, as this piece is an “extra” in the schedule. However, for all you fans of Dale Earnhardt in the original packaging, here’s a little something most of you have never heard. Yes, I have the CD and I love most of it. Did you know that Dale could sing? Wisely, he kept his day job, but give a listen to Dale singing “Hard Charger.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!