By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
As we head into the 60th running of the Daytona 500 this coming Sunday, we pause to take a look back on this “Throwback Thursday” at one of the most memorable Daytona 500’s in history, the 1998 Daytona 500.
For 20 years, Dale Earnhardt had come to Daytona International Speedway to capture glory in the “Great American Race” only to suffer defeat in every way possible. Earnhardt had won nearly every other event held at the famous 2.5 mile superspeedway, but the Daytona 500 still eluded him.
That was all about to change on February 15, 1998. This day exactly 20 years ago.
After seeing the green flag from honorary starter Dan Marino, Bobby and Terry Labonte, who started on the front row, set the early pace in the lead. However, a familiar black No. 3 Chevrolet lurked just behind for the opening 15 laps.
By lap 17, Earnhardt had made his way to the lead, a place that he had found himself so many times in this race in previous years.
A long green flag run through the first 125 laps of the race allowed several different drivers to take their turn at the front of the field including Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte, and Joe Nemechek. Of those drivers, Earnhardt and Gordon led the lion’s share of that opening salvo with Gordon leading 48 and Earnhardt leading 34 of the first 125 laps.
After two cautions flew on lap 126 and 174 for debris from Ward Burton’s No. 22 car and a two car spin involving John Andretti and Robert Pressley, Earnhardt continued to show that he was going to be the man to beat once more as he held off all comers through the first three-quarters of the event.
As Earnhardt continued to lead as the laps would down, the stage was set for the Intimidator to finally break the streak of Daytona 500 losses, but he would have to hold off Bobby Labonte, Gordon, and the Penske teammates of Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield to do so.
With just three laps remaining and Earnhardt still in the lead, one of the contenders, Gordon, had an issue with his No. 24 Chevrolet that dropped him out of the lead pack and back in the field, ending his chance for a second straight 500 win.
As the field stormed down the backstretch on the penultimate lap, two cars back in the pack, Lake Speed and John Andretti, tangled and went spinning toward the inside backstretch wall. The spin caused NASCAR to throw the caution and the race was on. Whoever was able to make it back to the finish line to take the yellow would be the Daytona 500 champion.
Earnhardt held his ground through Turns 3 and 4 with a hard-charging Labonte trying all he could to get around him. As they approached the slower car of Rick Mast in Turn 4, Earnhardt went high, using Mast as a pick and blocking any route that Labonte had to get around him.
Labonte and third place Mayfield bounced off of each other through the tri-oval, but Earnhardt had smooth sailing to the finish line to finally capture that elusive Daytona 500 win.
CBS Sports announcer Mike Joy had the famous call of the run to the finish, as he said:
“20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500! Finally! The most anticipated moment in racing. If John Elway can win the Super Bowl, Dale Earnhardt said he could win the Daytona 500 and as he comes around under caution to complete this final lap, the taste of long awaited victory will be his!”
As Earnhardt came down pit road after the finish to head to Victory Lane, every crew member from nearly every team lined up to congratulate Earnhardt on his long awaited Daytona 500 glory.
Before pulling into Victory Lane to celebrate the win with his team, Earnhardt made sure to pull into the infield grass to do a few doughnuts and in true Earnhardt style, carved a number three in the Daytona grass.
The celebration continued in Victory Lane as Earnhardt climbed from his car, triumphantly thrusting his arms into the air.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Man, can you believe it?! One, we’ve got an awesome race car, but two, thank the good Lord for a good day. This race car did everything, the good Lord looked after it all day long. Goodwrench, this is for all of those race fans and all of those people who have been saying ‘Dale, this is your year.’ Boy, a lot of them said it this year, all the way from Mr. France down to Todd Parrott and all of the guys on the team. The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it, we won it, we won it!”