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
"Rusty and I helped each other a lot at Daytona [in the '97 Daytona 500]," Mayfield recalled. "We were able to push each other and to help each other out. Sometimes I'd wait up to help him when he was in a little trouble; sometimes he'd wait up to help me when I was in a little trouble. He might make a couple of moves that would help me out, and I might make a couple of moves that would help him out. Our goal to the end was to be sitting one-two at the white flag. It didn't work out that way, but that's what we were shooting for. I don't know who would have won if it had worked out that way, but I do know there wouldn't have been a wreck, and there wouldn't have been any rubbing, and we would have finished one-two, too.
"Everything you do at Daytona and Talladega is with other cars on your mind. You're looking to your right, to your left, in the mirror, and through the windshield. You do all of these things to keep guys from doing things you don't want them to do. In the Daytona 500, Rusty and I were able to do those same things so we would do what we wanted each other to do.
"I think the '97 Daytona 500 was a prime example of the way two teammates should run a race. I think Rusty and I are fortunate that most other teams don't look at it the same way. We came out way ahead because of the way we worked together. Believe me, it's nice having a friend out there."
It's obvious to see, whether in the grandstands or watching on TV, how the drivers in the Daytona 500 are constantly jockeying for drafting position. Through long stages of a race, drivers may be content to stay in the long drafting line because, without a drafting partner, an attempted pass can backfire and send a car from Fourth to 15th Place.
Men who are fierce rivals often become other race drivers' long-lost pals if they believe the two cars working together can improve their positions in the field against their rivals.
"You have to have a drafting partner at Daytona and Talladega," Mayfield explained. "You might go to the dance alone at those places, but you aren't going to be there very long if you do. Drafting is everything there. Having just one partner you can really trust doesn't give you an advantage; it makes you even with just about everybody else.
"Restrictor plates make the draft vital to doing anything at those tracks. You sure aren't going to drive off and leave anybody there. Two guys aren't going to run off and leave anybody there. Shoot, even three or four guys aren't going to run off and leave everybody there. At the best, a partner can help you and help himself move toward the front, but it still boils down to a game of chess at 200 mph. What you are trying to do is not win the race with partnering and positioning. What you are trying to do is get yourself where you want to be for that final lap. It's kind of crazy. You spend 187 laps at Talladega trying to get yourself exactly where you want to be for the white-flag lap."
Starting position is very important at the Daytona 500, but not as essential as it would be at a track where it is very difficult to pass. The starting field in the Daytona 500 also is determined by the most complicated qualifying procedure in all of racing.
Only the front row is determined on Pole Day, which is held eight days before the Daytona 500. The remaining three days of time trials determine the starting lineups for the two Twin 125-Mile Qualifying Races held the Thursday before the Daytona 500.
The top 14 cars from each of the Twin 125s-exclusive of the front row set from Pole Day-form positions 3-30 in the Daytona 500 starting lineup. The finishing order from the first race lines up on the inside rows, while the finishing order from the second 125-miler takes the outside. Positions 31-36 are determined on the three days of time trial speeds, with starting spots 37-42 filled on provisional starting positions from the previous season's NASCAR Winston Cup standings.
A drafting partner is essential at Daytona. Dale Earnhardt got plenty of help from teammat
Little E is poised to go up against pops five times in 1999.
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