No one loved the Daytona International Speedway more than the man in black, the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt.
Over the course of his career, Earnhardt won 34 races at the World Center of Racing—from IROC, to Nationwide races, then Budweiser Shootout’s, Gatorade Duels, and the Daytona 500 and July classics.
Everything he sat in he won. He loved racing and he loved Daytona, both of which would take his life. While many will agree that much can be taken away from his death in terms of the safety innovations, others will reminisce about how he touched their lives in some way.
Years after his death many still and will forever have Feb. 18, 2001 etched in their minds. Feb. 18 was dubbed “Black Sunday” in the NASCAR world, and it will go down in history as one of the most horrible of times.
However, long before his death, Earnhardt made that date a special one. It’s just one of many that will have Dale Earnhardt and the Daytona International Speedway forever linked.
Before he finally won the Great American race, Earnhardt found plenty of ways to lose it. A memorable race was 1990's, when he blew a tire on the last lap heading into turn three.
Derrick Cope passed him for the win, his first Daytona 500 victory. The win was also the first of Cope’s career, a career that only consists of two Sprint Cup victories, but it was the 500 win that helped put in on the racing map.
The date: February 18.
Part two of the “Dale and Dale” show, as Ned Jarrett termed it, came in 1996, when Dale Jarrett beat Dale Earnhardt to the finish line for the Daytona 500 win, again. As the son came to the finish line it was his father Ned that called him there.
The date: February 18.
And everyone knows in that ill fated Feb. 18, 2001 race, the car Earnhardt owned went to victory lane. Michael Waltrip not only won his first career race like Cope did 11 years earlier, but once again it was the biggest race of them all.
Nothing, though, will compare to the race that fell on the 18th of February for the first time since Earnhardt’s death.
Kevin Harvick was called upon by Richard Childress to replace Earnhardt in 2001. The sponsor, GM Goodwrench, remained the same but the number and colors changed. Harvick spent 2001-2006 in a No. 29 white, and then silver and black, GM Goodwrench machine.
Prior to the 2007 season, Goodwrench announced they would not be back to sponsor the Richard Childress car. Unfortunately for them, they would miss a grand return in Daytona’s victory lane.
Six years to the day of losing Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick won his first Daytona 500 in a photo finish with Mark Martin. It was also the first victory at Daytona for RCR since they lost their friend and driver.
It was only fitting that Earnhardt’s car was the one in victory lane on Feb. 18.
Team owner Richard Childress seemed speechless afterward.
“You know, it’s just—it’s a great win. You know, it gives me thoughts back to our win here in ’98. And it’s just—we’re cherishing the moment of winning this Daytona 500. And I know Dale is proud of everything that we’ve done, and Kevin jumping in there and doing what he’s done for us. It’s just been an unbelievable ride.”
Childress was along for the ride when Earnhardt finally did win the Daytona 500 that had eluded him for so many years. After declaring, “if John Elway can win the Super Bowl, I can win the Daytona 500,” Earnhardt had no problem backing those words up.
After 20 years of trying he visited the grandest gates of all which opened for him on Feb. 15, 1998. While Earnhardt never won another Daytona 500, his love and impact on the race has remained.
When his son began racing in 2000 the questions were soon cast upon him, “When are you going to win the Daytona 500?”, and “Will it take you as long as your father?”
In 2004, Earnhardt Jr. answered those questions when he won the Great American race in his fifth attempt. Going to the track that killed his father is easy, Earnhardt, Jr. reveals to people often, he doesn’t seem to have any hard feelings toward the track; instead, it makes him feel closer to his dad.
The love for the Florida track has been passed from father to son.
“Well the things that have happened here affected so many people who are real close to me, Tony Sr., Tony Jr., the entire team. Every time we come to Daytona, we just feel—we all feel it, you know, whatever it is,” he said.
“We just feel real strong about being here. You know, in a way it feels like you’re closer to dad, but at the same time it’s a reminder of losing him all over again. So I wanted to come here and win.”
The date of that win: February 15.
It all has to start somewhere, with the first win, the first time that the Intimidator took the checkered flag at Daytona, which began the long list of 34 victories. The first win for Dale Earnhardt in a points-paying race was not in the month of February, but in the July classic.
The Pepsi 400 on July 7, 1990 was the first time that Earnhardt pulled into victory lane in a race that actually meant something. When he died on the last lap of the Daytona 500, everyone knew the series would eventually have to go back for it's July event.
When they did, everyone remembers the emotional victory that the son, Earnhardt, Jr., pulled off in honor of his father. He and Michael Waltrip embracing on the top of the car that sat in the front-stretch grass is a picture cherished by many.
However, what many may not remember is that the win was not only redemption for Earnhardt, Jr., but it also happened to be his first points paying victory at the track. The date was July 7, and 11 years to the day his dad stood in the exact same spot, Earnhardt, Jr. dedicated his win to him.
It also happened to be win number three of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career.
The three, made famous by Earnhardt, and worshiped by nearly everyone. The No. 3 also stands for an elusive club of drivers that captured their first points paying wins at Daytona in July…on the seventh day to be exact.
The latest coming from Jamie McMurray in 2007 who, ironically, will begin driving an Earnhardt car this coming season.
McMurray is just one of many connected to the legend in some way.
From Derrick Cope, to Dale Jarrett, to his son, and Kevin Harvick, the impact and the legacy of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. aren’t hard to find. He’ll forever be felt around the garage and tracks he made his home.
He’ll continue to influence drivers, inspire them, and will always be remembered. You need to understand that Dale Earnhardt did more than just drive racecars every Sunday—he left his mark on every track and every race.
And nowhere will that continue to be felt more than every time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the Daytona International Speedway—just as they'll do this weekend for another race on which Earnhardt is sure to leave his mark.