Dale Earnhardt Sr. is truly one of NASCAR’s greatest legends, with a total of 76 career victories and seven NASCAR Cup championships on the way to becoming a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.
But one victory, 20 years ago today, will always be special. The 1998 Daytona 500 was the race that Dale Earnhardt finally broke through and won “The Great American Race” in his 20th attempt.
Ironically, Earnhardt was considered a Daytona race master. He had won 11 Daytona 500 qualifying races, six Busch Clash races, four IROC all-star races, two 400-mile July races, and seven Grand National (now XFINITY Series) events at the famed 2.5-mile tri-oval.
That’s 30 victories at the track he loved - a place where legend was he could “see the air” in the draft of cars. It was a place where he was feared by the other competitors because he was so good in competition there.
But a series of mishaps in the biggest race of them all – the Daytona 500 – had hampered him in chasing the trophy he wanted most. Once, he won the Daytona 499 ½, cutting a tire going through the final two turns and losing the chance to win. Other times he had the dominant car only to be beaten by fuel strategy. Or he’d come runner-up in a battle to the finish line.
But that was all forgotten on Feb. 15, 1998, when Dale Earnhardt, once again dominant, led 107 of the race’s 200 laps to take his long-awaited victory in the third fastest 500 in history at that time.
The post-race scene was emotional as Earnhardt slowly rolled down pit lane, with every crew member from every team greeting him with high fives and slaps on his black No. 3 Chevrolet.
The streak had been broken and Dale Earnhardt finally got the trophy he always wanted.
Sadly, just three years later, again in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt was killed in a last lap crash in Turn 4 while attempting to block for his team cars of Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Jr., who went on to finish 1-2.
Kevin Kennedy is a guest writer to The Henry Ford.
In the classic baseball movie, The Natural, one of Roy Hobbs’ (played by Robert Redford) most memorable lines comes as he is sitting in a hospital bed, realizing that his final game is just days away.
“God, I love baseball,” Hobbs declares softly with a tilt of his head and a sincere look in his eyes that tells you how much he really means it. Watching that scene, you know Hobbs doesn’t care about the money that can be made playing baseball. He only cares about the pure joy of playing.
Well, Roy Hobbs would certainly fit right in with those who play Historic Base Ball at Greenfield Village.