Daytona's Magical Aura: Dale Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500
Daytona has always had this magical aura with stories surrounding the Daytona 500 that everybody loves to tell over and over. As we near closer to the Daytona 500, here is a look back through some of the highlighted moments in Daytona 500 history.
The story of the 1998 Daytona 500 and what Dale Earnhardt's win meant can be summed in this one quote from Ernie Irvan:
"If you look at the record books, Dale Earnhardt's done everything, except win the Daytona 500. Now they can't have that riding over him. Now they're just going to say, 'Dale Earnhardt, 1998 Daytona 500 winner,' and his shoulders are going to get lighter every time."
In his career, Earnhardt had seven Cup championships, won numerous races, including 30 races at Daytona, and had dominated the restrictor plate tracks leading up to the 1998 Daytona 500. Through the 20 years of his racing career leading up to that race, he had come up short in so many different ways.
In 1986, Earnhardt played the gas conservation game with Geoff Bodine as they drafted off of each other saving gas to try to make it to the end of the race without a stop. Earnhardt fell short as with three to go, he had to pit for fuel while Bodine went on to win the race.
In 1990 on the last lap, Earnhardt was leading heading into turn three when he had a flat tire, due to running over a piece of metal bell housing from the failed engine of Rick Wilson's car. In the end, it was Derrike Cope scoring the upset victory.
In 1991, Earnhardt was leading with six to go when Ernie Irvan passed him and went on to win it.
In 1993, Earnhardt had the lead and looked to win it, yet it was Dale Jarrett passing him with two laps to go to take the win.
In 1995, Earnhardt made the charge from 14th in the final laps to try to take the win, yet finished second while Sterling Marlin won.
In 1996, it was a repeat of '93 as Jarrett held off Earnhardt, again.
In 1997, Earnhardt was dueling with Jeff Gordon late in the race for the win when Earnhardt ended up flipping over while Gordon won it.
The 1998 Daytona 500 started off like any other - though it ended unlike any other.
As Mike Joy called it at the time, "Twenty years of trying. Twenty years of frustration. Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500! Finally! The most anticipated moment in racing!”
This race also marked the defining moment of Earnhardt's legacy as after the race, all the crew members, no matter what team they were on, lined up on pit road to congratulate Earnhardt on his victory.
The win was so big that it gained NASCAR non-racing media exposure, including a segment on David Letterman titled Top 10 Reasons It Took Me 20 Years to Win the Daytona 500.
Since the win, Earnhardt's Daytona 500 has been locked in the Daytona 500 vault as one of the biggest race in the history of Daytona and arguably, the biggest Daytona 500 of the entire 52 year history.
Regardless of how you look at the win, it showcases Daytona's Magical Aura of emotions and storylines wrapped together in wins.