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Retro Racing: After years of trying, Dale finally got his 500 win

February 24, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

After years of trying, Earnhardt finally got his Daytona 500 victory in 1998

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus rolled an immense boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to watch it roll back down.

In NASCAR mythology, Dale Earnhardt seemingly had an elusive Daytona 500 victory well within his grasp year after year, only to watch someone else climb the hill and snatch it away.

"I'll admit it. My eyes watered up in the race car coming to take the checkered. It's something I've always wondered what it might feel like."

--DALE EARNHARDT

"You can't kick the car and cry and pout and lay down and squall and bawl," Earnhardt said after fate handed him a flat tire on the last lap in 1990. "You've got to take it and walk on. We just ran short of luck."

"I'm not supposed to win the damn thing, I don't reckon," he said after finishing second to Sterling Marlin five years later.

And yet, he returned every February to roll his own personal boulder up the hill once more.

Looking back on his entire body of work at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt's numbers are astounding. According to legend, when the primary driver failed to show up for practice for the 1978 Firecracker 400, the car owner called on a little-known short-tracker from Kannapolis, N.C., who had some pretty impressive racing roots. And Dale Earnhardt drove that car to a seventh-place finish.

Ten consecutive victories in Daytona 500 qualifying races. Two wins in the July 400-miler. Six Busch Clashes. Four wins in the International Race of Champions. First place seven times in the February Busch race.

In nearly three of every four trips to Daytona, he recorded a top-10 finish, and almost half of the time, wound up in the top five. But 19 times he had come to the Daytona 500 and 19 times he had gone home without a win, until the 1998 Daytona 500.

In 1984 -- his first race in the No. 3 -- he finished second to Cale Yarborough. In 1986, he was leading Geoff Bodine with three laps to go when his car ran out of fuel.

Four years later, Earnhardt dominated the race, leading 155 laps. But on Lap 199, he ran over a piece of debris, cut a tire and the win went to Derrike Cope.

"It went [flat] right in front of the chicken-bone grandstands on the backstretch," he said. "I heard it hit the bottom of the car, and then it hit the tire and the tire went."

Earnhardt said there was no time to react, even if he had seen the debris.

"If I had known that debris was back there ... well, there ain't nothing you can do," he said. "You can't see everything on the race track. After that happened, I just drove to the top of the track, trying to stay out of their way.

"We knew who to beat, the cars that were left. They couldn't get by me. Derrike wins the race, but we beat them all day. They didn't outrun us, they just lucked into it."

There's a saying that second place is "first loser." But there wasn't anybody on the track who felt that way when it came to holding off Earnhardt in the closing laps of the Daytona 500.

"When you beat Dale Earnhardt anywhere at anything, any time, you know you've had a day's work," Dale Jarrett said in 1994.

"Any time you beat Dale Earnhardt in one of those late-race deals, it's real special," Marlin said in 1995.

Earnhardt's Daytona mythology only grew larger in 1997 when he was involved in a multi-car accident late in the race and the car flipped. At one point in an ambulance for the ride to the infield care center, Earnhardt instead climbed back into his mangled No. 3, started it up and drove it back to the pits.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

Maybe that was what finally broke the jinx. Or maybe it was the lucky penny given to Earnhardt by a young fan named Wessa Miller. Maybe it was just finally his day.

Whatever the case, Earnhardt erased all the bad luck by winning the 1998 Daytona 500. He led the final 61 laps and was able to successfully hold off Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield on the day's final caution to savor that long-awaited win.

"I'll admit it," Earnhardt said. "My eyes watered up in the race car coming to take the checkered. It's something I've always wondered what it might feel like."

It seemed that everyone on pit road was waiting to touch Earnhardt's glove after he celebrated by sliding his black No. 3 through the infield grass on the cool-down lap. And when he finally rolled into Victory Lane, he took his time climbing from the car, sitting there just a few extra moments by himself with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Can you believe it?," Earnhardt said. "No. 1, I've got an awesome race car. But No. 2, I want to thank the good Lord for a good day. This is for all them race fans and all them people who kept saying, 'Dale, this is your year.'

"The Daytona 500 is ours. We've won it, we've won it, we've won it."

And the boulder was lifted from Dale Earnhardt's shoulders forever.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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