Earnhardt ends droughts with first Daytona 500 win
By Bruce Martin
Sportsticker Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 15, 1998)
Fighting the pressure of an entire field of race cars behind him, as well as 19 years of disappointment, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
The seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion led the final 60 laps and held off a fierce battle behind him in the closing laps of the race. A two-car spin off the second turn involving John Andretti and Lake Speed two laps from the finish brought the race to its frantic conclusion as the drivers raced back to the caution flag that would determine the outcome.
Earnhardt was able to hold off Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace as he took the yellow and white flags.
One lap later, Earnhardt drove under the yellow and checkered flags to end two decades of frustration in the biggest race on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
In NASCAR's 50th anniversary season, one of its most legendary drivers finally won the one race that has eluded him, ending a 59-race winless streak overall in the process. And his rewards in the richest race in Winston Cup history will be over $1 million of the $7 million purse.
"Man, can you believe it?" Earnhardt said. "I had an awesome race car, but I've got to thank the Good Lord for a good day. All those people and all those race fans said, 'Dale, this is your year.' All the way from (NASCAR president) Bill France, Jr., on down. The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it. We won it. We won it."
As Earnhardt drove his famed black Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo on the cool-down lap, his crew chief, Larry McReynolds, radioed to the driver, "There's about 190,000 people here who have waited 20 years to see this. You ought to give them a Polish victory lap or something to let them remember this."
Earnhardt did not disappoint. As he came down pit lane with virtually every opposing crew member standing in line to shake his hand, Earnhardt drove into the grass that separates pit lane from the race drag and spun out in the Daytona logo painted in the grass.
"We have one heck of a race team," Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. "We're going to win a championship this year. Everybody who has been in races and has been my friend, I can't thank them all -- my Mom, Dale Jr., everybody."
Earnhardt's teammate, Mike Skinner, then entered Victory Lane and said, "You're the man. You're a bad man."
Earnhardt led the race five times for 107 of the 200 laps. He averaged 172.712 miles an hour around the 2.5-mile Daytona trioval. The race was slowed three times for nine laps of caution.
Bud Pole winner Bobby Labonte scored the highest Daytona 500 finish of his career by placing second.
"Jimmy Spencer worked with me and was able to help us get back to the front," Labonte said. "It was an awesome day."
Jeremy Mayfield, Rusty Wallace's teammate at Penske Racing, also scored his highest finish, coming in third.
"Everybody started shuffling at the end and didn't have a chance to make a run on him, but we gave it our best shot," Mayfield said.