Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Earnhardt and Daytona will be forever linked
By KEN WILLIS
DAYTONA BEACH — At Daytona, the final decade of the 20th century and first couple of years of the new millennium were, in many ways, no different than all the other decades in our racing history -- complete with chills and spills, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat and death.
We said goodbye to some, including Big Bill France, who died in 1992. It was a simple “see you later” to others -- like Richard Petty, who retired in 1992, and Junior Johnson, who sold his team and went home to grow his crops and new family.
We said “hello” to Jeff Gordon, who wasted little time in establishing himself on NASCAR´s biggest stage.
There was the constant search for a better way to race at Daytona, where restrictor plates have been knotting the fields and whitening knuckles since 1988. And along with the hair-raising drama of close-quarters racing, there was the constant addition of seats that ring the perimeter of the 2.5-mile speedway.
But if you´re looking for constants of this generation at Daytona, you must begin with the man whose combination of brilliance and heartbreak here came to symbolize Speed Weeks for a generation.
Dale Earnhardt and Daytona.
Daytona and Dale Earnhardt.
His greatest disappointments happened here in the 1990s, starting right away with his gut-wrenching, last-lap loss in the 1990 Daytona 500. His greatest, most long-awaited triumph happened here in 1998, when he finally chased away the dark clouds and added a Daytona 500 trophy to a case that was otherwise full.
And his final lap was taken here in 2001. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, with two of his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated cars (driven by Michael Waltrip and son Dale Jr.) battling for the win ahead of him, Earnhardt was killed in a wreck on the east banking. It was an accident that defied belief -- the indestructible man killed in a wreck that, at the moment, didn´t look all that horrifying.
In the decades ahead, when people think of Dale Earnhardt and Daytona, they´ll obviously think of that tragic moment. But when they crack open the record books, they´ll be amazed again at the run of brilliance here that came before that final lap.
The 500 aside, Earnhardt had a record of success at Daytona that is unlikely to ever be matched. He won 34 races here in six events: The 500 (1), the Pepsi 400 (2), the Busch Series race (7), the 125-mile qualifying race (12), the Busch Clash/Budweiser Shootout (6) and the International Race of Champions (6).
Of those 34, 26 came during the ´90s. Included were a pair of remarkable streaks. He won five straight Busch Series races -- held on the Saturday prior to the 500 -- between 1990-94, a streak that might´ve continued if Earnhardt hadn´t quit running that series. And of all the great marks in his record book, there may be nothing as remarkable, as hard to fathom, as his 10 straight victories in 125-mile qualifying races (1990-99).
Earnhardt´s mastery of Daytona´s drafting technique left the competition in disbelief. Before restrictor plates were installed, Earnhardt proved very adept at the high-speed game of drafting. After the plates came along, when the nuances were more vital, he was even better. It was a game of cat-and-mouse, on a chessboard, and Earnhardt played the game as if he´d invented it.
He could see the wind, some suggested. And he was so good, some actually believed it.
And it was quite a paradox, given how Earnhardt preached the evils of restrictor plates to all who would listen.
“They need to take those damn things off the cars and let us run,” he said time and time again.
For all the track gave him, it seemed as if the biggest reward of all would always elude the Man in Black, until that final Sunday of Speed Weeks in 1998, when he was first under the checkers. That victory was the crowning moment in a career that had no equal in terms of all available emotions.
But it was two other moments during the decade that best symbolized Earnhardt´s career in the Daytona 500. One involved the buzzard´s luck that seemed to ride along, year after year, on that final Sunday. The other was a testament to his guts and desire.
In 1990, Earnhardt´s famed black Chevy was far and away the class of the field. He qualified on the outside of the front row. He dominated his 125-mile qualifier (no surprise there), and led 155 of the Daytona 500´s first 199 laps.
In the west banking of Lap 200, Earnhardt found a veritable needle in a haystack -- a piece of bell housing that had fallen off the car of Geoff Bodine -- and cut a tire. As he approached Turn 3 at the end of the backstretch, his worst fear struck. The right rear tire had indeed been punctured. Though other such circumstances ended with the damaged car careening to the wall, Earnhardt managed to slowly glide up the track as if he were simply pulling over to let others by.
Derrike Cope and three others flew by. Earnhardt finished fifth in a race he absolutely owned all afternoon.
The 1997 race brought another heartbreak, but it was tempered by a little tough-guy showmanship that, in retrospect, surprised no one. It happened on Lap 190. Earnhardt and Gordon were battling for second place behind Bill Elliott. They raced side by side, Earnhardt outside of Gordon, through Turns 1 and 2.
Coming off the second turn, Earnhardt´s car lost its grip slightly and slid up into the concrete wall. It hit squarely on its right side and rebounded back toward Gordon, who kept his car together and sped along to eventual victory.
Earnhardt´s car was clipped by others from behind, and the familiar black No. 3 began tumbling down the backstretch as part of what became a multi-car wreck. After getting out of his car unharmed and making the mandatory walk to a nearby ambulance, Earnhardt was sitting and awaiting the ride to the infield hospital when he noticed that his car was battered but possibly still driveable.
He left the ambulance, and when he discovered that the ignition was full of life, he shooed away the tow trucks and limped the car around the track to his pit. Just another signature moment in the Decade of Earnhardt, but maybe the most telling of all.
Another signature moment came courtesy of another Earnhardt, Dale Jr., in the summer of 2001. The Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona in July of that year, just five months after the tragic ending to the Daytona 500. The same two cars that finished first and second in the 500 -- again with Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. aboard -- were again running 1-2 in the Pepsi 400. This time, Junior was first under the checkers, and the celebration was one of the wildest in the track´s history -- topped only, of course, by the one in Victory Lane in 1998.