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A Daytona legend

Richard Childress couldn’t sleep. It was early in the morning the day of the 1998 Daytona 500, and the team owner was worried about all the things that could go wrong later that day. His No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, driven by Dale Earnhardt, had lost the Daytona 500 every way there is to lose it — cutting a tire on the last lap, running out of gas and hitting a seagull, to name just three — and neither Earnhardt nor Childress had ever won NASCAR’s biggest race.

Could 1998 be the year? Childress so desperately wanted the answer to be yes that it kept him awake. His team had built the car the previous summer, tested it at Talladega and sent it to the wind tunnel. Earnhardt loved how the car felt. He won his qualifying race and had been fast every time he was on the track. Still, their hearts had been broken numerous times, so all of those reasons for optimism did little to calm Childress’ nerves.

If Earnhardt wrestled with similar anxiety, he showed no signs of it. By then a seven-time Cup champion, Earnhardt slept that previous night in his yacht (“Sunday Money”) and drove from there to Daytona International Speedway at mid-morning. He parked in the motorcoach lot and climbed out of his Cadillac glowing with confidence. Which is to say, just like every other day at the race track. The only difference was this day would yield the most memorable win of his legendary career.

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Don Hawk, then the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., now the vice president of business affairs for Speedway Motorsports Inc., was with Earnhardt for much of the morning. He says the Man in Black spent more time than usual at his race car, as if he were visually checking every nut and bolt on the infamous black No. 3, and for good reason. The team had changed the engine the day before, so it was doubly important that everything, and every thing, be perfect.

Convinced the car was ready, Earnhardt walked to the motorcoach lot, where he ate lunch (probably a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though he also liked tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches) with his wife, Teresa, and their daughter, Taylor Nicole.


Swaggering confidence

Counting that year’s Daytona 500 qualifying race, Earnhardt had won 30 races at the 2.5-mile track, more than anybody in history. But he had never won the Daytona 500. His quest to end that losing streak was the story line that year, and every other year.

Earnhardt was on a 59-race winless streak, and there was talk he had become too focused on running his businesses and not enough on running his cars. He was 46 years old. Skeptics wondered if he would ever win a Cup race again, never mind the biggest one. None of that seemed to faze him that morning. He swaggered around the pre-race festivities like a man who knew he had a fast car and wanted everybody else to know it, too.

Childress always recognized what mood Earnhardt was in by his body language. The two of them had won six championships and 61 races together at that point, and Childress told NASCAR.com he had never seen Earnhardt so upbeat before a race.

Everyone wanted to slap hands with Dale Earnhardt when it was over. | RacingOne

Jeff Gordon, the defending Daytona 500 and defending Cup champion, asked Earnhardt are you going to win your first Daytona 500 today? Earnhardt didn’t answer. He just tilted his sunglasses down and fixed Gordon with the kind of stare that had led to him being called “The Intimidator.”

“I wish I knew what he was thinking,” Hawk says. “I knew him well enough to tell you this, tilting those glasses was telling Jeff, if you’re in my way, move over.”

Crew chief Larry McReynolds talked to Earnhardt just before he drove off pit road to start the race. “(Dale) kind of grabbed me by the collar,” McReynolds said. “And he said, ‘You just keep me in touch with the lead all day long, and if I’m running second on that last lap, that guy that’s leading, his day’s going to go bad, real fast.’ It wasn’t cocky, he was just really confident in what was going on.”

Captain Jack, Sunday Money

Earnhardt started fourth and took the lead for the first time on Lap 17 of the scheduled 200. The race was uneventful for Daytona — the “Big One” never came. There were only three cautions, and the third came on Lap 199. The long green-flag runs played into Earnhardt’s strengths, as he was then and is now widely considered the best restrictor-plate driver in history. Earnhardt had an inherent advantage in a race that was decided based on the speed of the car and the skill of the driver, instead of strategy, fuel mileage or pit stops.

Earnhardt took the lead for the fifth and final time on Lap 140. On Lap 174, Robert Pressley and John Andretti wrecked, causing the second caution of the day.

“Tilting those glasses was telling Jeff (Gordon), if you’re in my way, move over.”

As the cars turned the final caution lap, McReynolds was wound tighter than a rear spring. “If you would have thumped me, I probably would have disintegrated. I’m so uptight,” he says. “I’m already going through what-if situations. What if we have another caution? I’m trying to map my game plan out.”

As if McReynolds’ anxiety wasn’t bad enough already, he suddenly had a new problem to deal with: A voice he had never heard over the team radio crackled in his ear. According to writer Rick Houston in Dale vs. Daytona: The Intimidator’s Quest to Win the Great American Race and multiple sources to NASCAR.com, the voice said something like this:

“Hey Sunday Money, this is Captain Jack. Why don’t you go out there and snag that big one today?”

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McReynolds was furious. Who was Captain Jack, and why was he interrupting us when we’re trying to win the Daytona 500?

“I’m fixing to cuss him for everything he’s worth,” McReynolds said. “It very well could have gotten me kicked out of NASCAR.”

Just before McReynolds lit into Captain Jack, Childress got his attention. He pointed to the suites above the track. And that stirred a memory for McReynolds: Childress had told him the year before that sometimes the occupant of one of those suites talked to Earnhardt on the radio. It had never happened until now, so McReynolds had forgotten.

But now he remembered: Captain Jack was NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr.

At the last second, Childress had saved his crew chief from a tirade he would have regretted for the rest of his career, however short it would have been. “He looked like he was about ready to bite his microphone off,” Childress said. “It was funny to see Larry Mac panic right there.”

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Crying, hugging, doubting, praying

The race restarted on Lap 178, with Earnhardt still in the lead. The laps ticked down. He remained out front. However high the tension normally is near the end of a Daytona 500 for those in contention, it was worse for Earnhardt and his crew on this day, given all of their near misses. The CBS broadcasters reported that Earnhardt had been leading the Daytona 500 with 20 to go seven times and with 10 to go four times.

Hawk stood on a jack, wrapped both his hands around the handle, rested his head upon them and closed his eyes. Dick Berggren, the reporter working Earnhardt’s pit for CBS, approached him, microphone pointed down, the posture that meant that the question was not going to be on the air. Berggren said it looked like Hawk was alternating between having a heart attack and praying. He asked Hawk if he was praying. Hawk admitted he was. But not for a win. He prayed that whatever happened at the end, that Earnhardt be kept safe and not be embarrassed by the outcome.

Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress celebrated, but not without a nerve-wracking final few laps. David Taylor | Getty Images

On Lap 199, Lake Speed and Andretti crashed, bringing out the third caution of the race. Today, the field is frozen when the caution comes out. In those days, drivers raced back to the line, meaning Earnhardt had to get back to the start/finish line to maintain his lead for the ensuing caution period, which would last one lap and end the race. (The green-white-checkered overtime policy had not been adopted yet.)

A drama-free race of 496.5 miles to that point induced 3.5 miles’ worth of high anxiety. Everyone in or near Earnhardt’s pit just assumed something would go wrong.

“There were a lot of hungry hounds behind us that had never won a Daytona 500 either,” McReynolds said. “We were either going to win this thing or there was going to be a helluva wreck.”

Barreling down the backstretch, Earnhardt used his friend Rick Mast, who was three laps down, as a pick to keep Bobby Labonte behind him. Earnhardt led the race back to the start/finish line, where he drove under the white flag and yellow flag at the same time.

All Earnhardt had to do to win was drive one lap in which passing is illegal. Even then, Earnhardt’s supporters refused to believe the race was his.

“You’ve got tears in your eyes. You don’t want to say anything. You don’t want to jinx anything. What if something breaks? What if the engine quits running?” says Chocolate Myers, who was Earnhardt’s gas man then and is now the curator at the Richard Childress Racing Museum and a radio personality on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It seems like it takes a year-and-a-half for that car to get back around.”

Said spotter Danny Culler: “You always expected something to happen.”

And it wasn’t just his team who was worried.

Track president John Graham: “We were all holding our breath that there would be no engine failure or other calamity.”

Mike Helton, then NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief operating officer: “With the history he has at the Daytona 500, who knows? The body could have blown off.”

The engine didn’t quit running, he didn’t cut a tire, the body did not blow off. He did not plow through a seagull. He drove a normal caution lap … well, maybe a bit faster than usual, as if he had waited 20 years and was not going to wait one second longer to win the race. As Earnhardt drove under the waving checkered flag, in his pit, Hawk paused for a fraction of a second, the flash of a firework before the boom, an ever-so-brief moment of disbelief. Are you kidding me? It’s over?

And then …

“Pandemonium broke out in his pit. People were going absolutely berserk,” Berggren said. “Grown men jumping up and down. People crying, people hugging each other. It was profound emotion. I felt it, too. You couldn’t help it. I think everybody in that place that day felt it.”

Hawk sprinted across pit road, pointed at the 3 car and screamed, “You’re the man!” He grabbed Myers and hugged him. He grabbed Childress and hugged him, too.

Up in race control, Helton, who had been friends with Earnhardt for years and three years later would tell the world Earnhardt had died, took care of his responsibilities in officiating the end of the race and then sat back and absorbed what had just happened. He looked over at France Jr., whom he could see through a window. “He’s got a grin on his face bigger than the glass was,” Helton said.

When Earnhardt pulled off the track and onto pit lane en route to Victory Lane, crew men from every team lined up to greet him. His car crept along so he could give a high five to everyone who wanted one. “It was like when a stadium does the wave, sort of slow motion,” Hawk said. “That’s how that line grew. Like whoa, WHoa, WHOA!”

“He’s got a grin on his face bigger than the glass was.”

CBS play-by-play man Mike Joy famously called it “the longest receiving line in the history of celebrations.” When Earnhardt finally finished that receiving line, McReynolds wanted him to do a polish victory lap — to drive around the track in the opposite direction, to honor the late Alan Kulwicki.

Earnhardt had a different idea.

During Speedweeks, Daytona officials had asked drivers not to tear up the infield grass. They wanted the logo to remain clear and readable. “It was all sparkly and pretty and everything,” Helton says. “The race is now over. Senior’s coming down pit road. Dale Sr. cues up his radio and says, ‘Captain Jack, is it OK if I do a burnout on your grass?’ And Bill Jr. said, ‘It’s all yours, Pal.’ That’s when Dale Sr. goes off in the grass and cuts the donuts.”

Dale Earnhardt asked permission to turn this donut in the infield grass. | RacingOne