“Now there’s the kid to watch. This kid Earnhardt.” CBS anchor Ken Squier uttered that great line during his call of the 1979 Daytona 500. I would say Squier was correct.
Dale Earnhardt’s extremely successful career had a chapter all of its own about his struggles to win the Daytona 500. The story grew in stature year after year not only because of the close-but-no-cigar finishes in the 500, but because of his excellence in NASCAR at winning everything else.
That 1979 race in Earnhardt’s rookie season ended with him in fourth place. Little did any of us know a Hall of Fame career was underway.
He brought home a Busch Clash trophy to open Daytona Speedweeks in 1980. That year closed with his first series title.
He claimed a runner up 500 finish in 1984 in what began the second stint with Richard Childress as his car owner.
Equipment, aggression, and talent started to merge in 1985 and Earnhardt was a force on the short tracks winning four of the eight scheduled for the year. The bumping was becoming more noticeable and the “Intimidator” label started to emerge.
He duplicated his 1980 Clash and Championship season bookends with the same feat in 1986. A race-long 500 battle with Geoff Bodine went anticlimactic when Earnhardt pitted for fuel with a handful of laps remaining. Bodine saved enough gas to coast into Victory Lane.
The following week at Richmond, Virginia featured the oft-replayed crash between Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip near the finish. This race however, showed the uncommon trait of him being able to show dominance on superspeedways and short tracks. Most teams favored one of the other. Earnhardt’s second title showed every speedway was his strong suit.
A top-five 500 finish began another championship run in 1987. This was also a year when a question began to be asked to two of the sport’s biggest names, Waltrip and Earnhardt.
The pair had won six of the eight previous Championships but not a Daytona 500 victory between them. Everyone wanted to know “why not?” Pressure was tossed their way.
Strong Speedweek runs by both, fell short of a 500 victory for either. Waltrip finally used his own fuel mileage strategy in 1989. His 17th attempt ended his own personal drought and eyes turned to Earnhardt.
The 1990 Daytona action saw Earnhardt begin a ten-year consecutive streak of Thursday qualifying race wins. In Sunday’s 500, the “Man in Black” led 155 laps in a dominating performance. With the win appearing well in hand the now-infamous blown tire on the final circuit gave the victory to Derrike Cope in front of the stunned audience- thousands in person and millions on TV.
Championships in 1990 and 1991 engraved Earnhardt’s legacy in the record books. His 1991 500 ended with a late spin and crash while battling for second.
Good finishes kept mounting with a ninth in 1992, seventh in 1994, seconds in 1993, 1995, and 1996.
Cup Championships were won in 1993 and 1994. The Brickyard 400 trophy from Indianapolis also went home with him in the latter year.
His upstart archrival Jeff Gordon won his first 500 in 1997. Earnhardt crashed and rolled onto his roof while dueling with Gordon late in the race.
Every other accomplishment in NASCAR Cup racing was checked off his list. There was nothing else to prove. But the biggest race of any stock car driver’s life remained glaringly absent from the Earnhardt resume.
An overcast and cool day set the backdrop for the 40th Daytona 500. Earnhardt, as he had repeatedly done year after year, put himself into a position to win and led late. The tension ratcheted up as his loyal followers hoped their prayers would finally be answered. The rest looked on waiting for the inevitable downfall and annual heartbreak.
Squier called Earnhardt’s talent in 1979. Mike Joy called him home in 1998. “Twenty years of trying. Twenty years of frustration. Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500!”
Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win was made that much more joyous because of two decades of adversity in “The Great American Race.” The Championship talent that won every other trophy NASCAR's top level had to offer gave him and his legions of fans great optimism each February.
The victory was long anticipated. Now the memory is long cherished.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)
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