It took 20 years for Dale Earnhardt to achieve his quest of winning the Daytona 500. When Earnhardt finally accomplished his goal last February, it stood out as one of the greatest moments in NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration.
No longer could Earnhardt be asked the question, Are you ever going to win the Daytona 500? Or, Will your career be incomplete without a victory in the Daytona 500?
"This is my 20th year, and I'm tired of answering that question of why I haven't won the Daytona 500," Earnhardt said before last year's race.
Now that Earnhardt has finally put those questions to rest, a new question may be asked prior to the '99 Daytona 500: Dale, can you win the Daytona 500 two years in a row?
In NASCAR Winston Cup racing, success is ephemeral. For every accomplishment, another goal looms ahead, giving Winston Cup drivers or teams just a short time to experience their feat.
To say Earnhardt finally knows how to win the Daytona 500 would be inaccurate. Earnhardt entered last year's Daytona 500 as the all-time victory leader at Daytona International Speedway with 30 wins. In fact, Earnhardt probably knew how to win the Daytona 500 much earlier in his career, but a variety of circumstances, and just plain bad luck, kept him out of Victory Lane until last year.
Back-to-back Daytona 500 victories for Earnhardt?
If he were to be successful in winning Daytona two years in a row, he would join a select group that includes Richard Petty (1973-'74), Cale Yarborough (1983-'84), and Sterling Marlin (1994-'95).
"It does become easier to a point when you go back somewhere after you have already won that race," Earnhardt admitted. "I've won more races at that racetrack than I have anywhere else. I've won more races there than anyone else has. To go back there and win it after winning the Daytona 500, the one that had eluded me for 19 years, I do feel better about it. I am more excited about it. I don't think it gives me any advantage or edge. Everybody is as tuned at Daytona as I am. I think the testing and things that have gone on and are happening are very important.
"You look at the Richard Childress team and myself-we go out and win races. Now, we have not won races in a while, and last year didn't go the way it should have or we wanted it to. No, it's not easy to go out and do it again. You have to work hard every time to do it again.
"You don't win a championship again because you won it last year; you win it again because you work hard to win it again. The same goes for races. Daytona will be just as hard to win as it has been before."
There are many keys to success in the Daytona 500. It's a speedway that requires an outstanding restrictor-plate engine-a motor that can produce horsepower while being choked for air because of the smaller openings in the restrictor plate, which fits above the carburetor. The car must also slice through the air aerodynamically. Also, it must be good in the draft, which brings another variable into the equation-the value of a drafting partner.
"I have Mike Skinner," Earnhardt said of his teammate at Richard Childress Racing. "I think that at any aerodynamic track you run on, it's important to have a drafting partner or someone to work with in the draft. It's become something that you see the Ford teams, the Chevrolet teams, the Roush teams, the Hendrick team, and the Penske team working on together. I think if we didn't have Mike Skinner in February, I wouldn't have won the Daytona 500, or my opportunity wouldn't have been as good.
"Mike got me out there, got me out front, and got me going. I think it was a major, major plus."
The art of a drafting partner also worked wonders for Jeremy Mayfield, who had his highest finish at the Daytona 500 with a Third Place last year while his Penske teammate-Rusty Wallace-also scored a career-high finish at the Daytona 500 with Fifth Place.
Can Earnhardt repeat this scene in 1999?
Mike Skinner was more than happy to run with The Intimidator last year. Look for more of t