10 years ago
"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.
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.
It was a long wait for the Intimidator, but 1998 finally saw the seven-time Cup champion win NASCAR's signature event.
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.
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
HERE ARE SOME VIDEOS OF THE WIN.