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On This Date in Sports February 15, 1998: Dale Finally Wins the Daytona 500

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

After 20 years of bad breaks and near misses, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. Earnhardt, considered one of the giants of Stock Car racing, had won seven NASCAR season championships and every other major race, including the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Still, he had never won the season-opening “Great American Race.” After finally capturing the checkered flag, Earnhardt celebrated with a donut in the infield.

Born on April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt was a second-generation stock car driver, following in the footsteps of his father, Ralph Earnhardt, who was one of NASCAR’s early pioneers. Becoming a full-time racer on the Winston Cup circuit in 1979, Earnhardt became an immediate star, winning the Rookie of the Year. Over the next two decades, Dale Earnhardt became NASCAR’s biggest star, as he tied Richard Petty’s record with seven Winston Cup season championships. A hard-charging, aggressive driver in his trademarked black #3 Chevy, Dale Earnhardt earned the nickname the intimidator.

At the age of 47, Dale Earnhardt had achieved everything in NASCAR, winning every major race at least once, except the biggest of them all, the season-opening Daytona 500. Starting with his first race at Daytona in 1979, Earnhardt was almost always in contention, but somehow never was able to win the “Great American Race” as he finished in the top ten 14 times, including ten times in the top five. This included a four-year stretch, where the man in black finished second three times. Amazingly, Earnhardt dominated during the week leading up to the Daytona 500, as he won 27 races during his 19 years at speed week leading up to the race.

The 1998 NASCAR season was extra special as it celebrated its 50th anniversary. Bobby Labonte captured the pole next to his brother Terry, while Sterling Marlin qualified third and Dale Earnhardt qualified fourth, winning the Gatorade Twin 125s. The race was one of the cleanest in the 40-year history of the Daytona 500, as there were just three cautions in the entire 200-lap event. This led to the race being the fastest Daytona 500 in the restrictor plate era and the second fastest overall. The first caution came midway through the race when Ward Burton blew a tire. The second caution came later in the race when John Andretti and Robert Pressley made contact in turn two. However, for most of the afternoon, it was clear that it would be Dale Earnhardt’s day as he led 107 laps. The race, which had been run clean, finally had its big crash near the end as Andretti and Lake Speed bumped and spun out in the corner of turn two as Earnhardt, who had led since the 138th lap, was still in front ahead of Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield. As Earnhardt took the white and yellow flag, everyone applauded as he took home the checkered flag under caution to finally win the Daytona 500.

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After the race was completed, Dale Earnhardt driving down pit road was greeted by every pit crewmember from every team who reached into his black Chevy with #3 to offer congratulations. After the handshake line was over, Earnhardt took his car into the famous infield and did a donut in the shape of his famous #3.