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PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Daytona 1998 Winners Circle - His Finest Moment! (Photo By Bruce Hidaka-Gordon For The Auto Channel, Copyright 1998, All Rights Reserved)

Earnhardt Wins the Daytona 500

Daytona Beach, FL 16 February 1998- The man in black finally found the finish line first. "Dale Earnhardt wins the Daytona 500" or "Victory at Last" will be the headline on the sports pages across North American newspapers tomorrow. The "Great American Race" has finally been conquered by the man called "The Intimidator." An emotional Dale Earnhardt commented in victory lane, "I knew we had a good race car, and that's what's important. We worked hard all day long to keep it in position and to keep it in place to win."

The victory was made all the more poignant when Earnhardt entered pit-lane. Every crew member from every team came on to pit lane to congratulate the seven-time Winston Cup Champion. It was an emotional scene that is, unfortunately, not replicated in other professional sports. After chasing the elusive first "500" victory for the past 19 years, the 20th start proved to be the right number. Earnhardt's victory was a hard-fought one. Five other driver's put forth efforts that could have been rewarded with victory. But on this cool and cloudy day Earnhardt was the man to beat and no one did.

The first person to try and solve the 31-degree high banks of Daytona was pole-sitter Bobby Labonte, who eventually garnered second place. Labonte in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac looked strong at the start and then again at the finish. In between, Labonte stayed in the top ten and was in position to make a trophy dash, but Earnhardt, with or without the last-lap caution, looked to tough.

Jeremy Mayfield in the Mobil 1 Ford Taurus turned in a fantastic third-place drive. Mayfield stayed in the top ten for most of the day and seemed to be preparing his car and himself for a run on Earnhardt when the last caution flag came out. Ken Schrader driving the Skoal Bandit Chevrolet Monte Carlo should be given the nod for courageous drive of the week. On Thursday, Schrader's car slammed into the second turn wall during the last lap of the Twin 125 race. The impact left Schrader severely bruised and battered. Wearing a protective flak jacket, Schrader drove to an incredible fourth place finish after starting the race in 31st position. Fifth place was claimed by Mayfield's teammate Rusty Wallace in the Miller Lite Ford Taurus.

Earnhardt's #3 Goodwrench sponsored Monte Carlo seemed to be able to go wherever he pointed the machine. Long known for driving the low line at Daytona, Earnhardt proved to himself and the other 42 competitors that he still has what it takes. The victory broke a 59-race winless streak. His last victory was at Atlanta March 10, 1996. No question that Earnhardt was holding his breath during the last few laps considering all of the things that have happened to him during this race. Earnhardt admitted to getting emotional on the last lap of the race. After being received by all the well-wishers on pit row, Earnhardt did a couple of donuts on the Daytona infield. Earnhardt commented that "since the car was going to be given to Daytona USA for a year," he wanted to "drive the 'good' out of it." Earnhardt also said that he "was kinda glad that Bobby [Labonte] was behind" him since he "seemed to draft better with him."

The race was on a record pace in the early going. The race was free of incidents until the second round of routine pit stops started on lap 107. Pit row quickly dissolved into a Saturday night demolition derby that involved Dick Trickle, Dale Jarrett, Derrike Cope, Jeff Burton and Geoff Bodine. The sequence of the pit row calamity was triggered as the cars were preparing to leave pit row. When the dust settled Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Derrike Cope had suffered enough damage to their respective cars that they would no longer be in contention.

The first caution period of the race did not occur until lap 124 when Ward Burton cut a tire in turn #3. Two laps later the entire field of cars had put on four fresh tires and refueled. Rusty Wallace, by way of his pit crew assumed the lead. The first and only time that a Ford would lead the race. Wallace lost the lead three laps later to Earnhardt on lap 131. For Earnhardt the lead over the remaining 69 laps would be interrupted for one lap to Kenny Schrader on lap 139. Each team knew that one more round of pit stops would be required. Just when that would occur was being hotly debated up and down pit row. Teams were also making deals with potential dance partners. The discussions between teams came to an abrupt halt when John Andretti and Robert Pressley spun on the back stretch.

During this pit stop Dale Earnhardt's "Flying Aces" won the race. A two tire stop and a splash of fuel had Earnhardt in and out in less than 10 seconds. The pit stop was reminiscent of days gone by when Earnhardt's crew ruled pit row.

The victory by Earnhardt may be a precursor of things to come this year. At least Dale Earnhardt thinks so. During the never-ending post-race celebration Earnhardt summed up his day with a warning to his competitors, "We're going to go for the championship now. We've got a great team. This team can win the championship this season."

David Treffer -- The Auto Channel