The 43rd, and final, starting position is reserved for a former NASCAR Winston Cup champion who failed to make the field based on the previous criteria. It only sounds complicated because it is.
After Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career last February, he believed he was on his way to a record-breaking eighth NASCAR Winston Cup championship. But, it didn't happen, as 1998 was a season of frustration for Earnhardt and his team.
"This season has been rocky with highs and lows," Earnhardt said toward the conclusion of the '98 Winston Cup campaign. "When you pull into a racetrack and they drop that green flag, hey, you want to be one of those guys the fans, the crews, and the teams are thinking, 'I've got to watch out for that #3 car.' Right now, we aren't that force in Winston Cup racing. We have to get back to that position.
"I don't know what happened to the team. You're going to have to go talk to Richard to dissect that. We all work hard at RCR. I don't think you can point the finger at one guy, at one point of that team, and say this is the reason. I think you have to look at the whole spectrum. It's a whole team effort.
"Richard Childress has always been a force at restrictor-plate racetracks, but I want to be that way everywhere we go. It didn't jump-start us in February. Last February was great, and the honeymoon isn't over yet, but it didn't translate to the rest of the season."
Although 1998 didn't turn out the way Earnhardt had hoped, he still had one glorious achievement to celebrate, which could stand as one of the crowning achievements in his NASCAR Winston Cup career-that is the win at the Daytona 500.
"I woke up the next morning and still couldn't believe I had won the Daytona 500," Earnhardt recalled. "The disappointment you go through and the chapters of your life each year of the race, to finally win this race, well, this is big.
"I wish every race driver that ever runs Daytona could feel what I felt in Victory Lane. That's a feeling I know they have worked so hard for. It's a shame they can't have a lot of winners, but that is what makes the Daytona 500 so elusive.
"That's one of the greatest feelings in your life, to work that many years and come so close and be so dominant and finally win that race. It's an accomplishment I won't forget."
It's also a victory that stands the test of time.
"When Darrell Waltrip and I are sitting around old on the front porch and he talks about his three championships and his Daytona 500 victory, I can too," Earnhardt said. "We used to pick on each other. I'd say, 'Well, Darrell, I've won seven championships.' He'd say, 'Yeah, but you ain't ever won the Daytona 500.'
"He can't say that anymore."
Dale vs. Dale (Jr.)As the '99 race season kicks off at Daytona, it's not too early to look ahead to some things that forecast new and exciting race scenarios. Among such developments is the entry of Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the ranks of the Winston Cup competitors. To preserve his Winston Cup rookie status, Dale Jr. will be participating in only five Winston Cup races in 1999. Upon entering the top level of circle-track racing, one of the first things he will encounter on the track is his father-The Intimidator. Not since 1992 (Richard and Kyle Petty) have we seen father-and-son competition in Cup racing, so we turned to Dale Jr. to get his thoughts on racing with his dad.
"Racing in five Winston Cup races next year will be a good opportunity to get some experience in a Winston Cup car," he said. "I'm not really sure how much racing I will be doing against him yet. There will be a lot of other cars out there, but if I get up beside him somewhere it will be a lot of fun."-By David Miller