Dale's Daytona Day: 40th 500 Still Most Remembered

Mark Eckhart Jr.Correspondent INovember 2, 2008

It's 2008 and the Nascar season is winding down without much of a championship chase. Johnson is running away with it all and is well on his way to a third title. It's time to take a little trip down memory lane.

The trip takes us back to Daytona International Speedway. The event—the 1998 Daytona 500. The memory—Earnhardt finally breaks through and gets his biggest victory.

The date is February 15th, 1998. Dale Earnhardt wakes up thinking the same thing he's thought the previous 19 years. This year is my year. Earnhardt yet again clearly had the field covered through all of speed weeks, and the No.3 team knew they had the car to beat. The only thing they had to worry about was avoiding all of the problems that have cost Earnhardt victories in the past.

In 1990, heading into turn three of the last lap, Earnhardt blew a tire and Derrick Cope flew past him on the outside, claiming his first Daytona 500 win. "We were just a quarter of a lap away from victory" Earnhardt said with a half smile from the garage area after the race.

In 1993, and 1996 Earnhardt finished in second place behind Dale Jarrett. In 1997, Earnhardt was wrecked on the backstretch while running in second and flipped numerous times. Earnhardt saw the wheels were still on the car, and proceeded to leave the ambulance and finish that race. "He did not want a DNF in the Daytona 500" said Larry McReynolds, his crew chief at the time.

Then 1998 rolled around, and he met a breath of fresh air before the race.

The girl's name is Wessa, and she suffers from Spina Bifida. Earnhardt met her through the a Make-A-Wish promotion at the speedway. She handed Earnhardt a penny, telling him that "this will be your good luck charm to finally win the Daytona 500." Earnhardt took the penny, glued it to the dash, and never looked back.

Whether is was fate, the penny and the girl, or the fact that Earnhardt didn't want to be outdone by John Elway, who won his first Super Bowl a month before the race. Regardless, Earnhardt finally closed the deal.

Earnhardt dominated the 500 for most of the day, leading the most laps, and with two laps to go a caution came out on the backstretch. At that moment, Earnhardt knew he was half a lap from victory, and in that moment he flashed back to all of the times victory was snatched from him in the closing laps.

On this day he wasn't about to be denied. He was able to use a lap down car as a pick to prevent Bobby Labonte from passing him, and then the most memorable line in all of motorsports was echoed.

"20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500...finally."

It had been 20 years in the coming, but Earnhardt finally could check this race off of his list. Then as he came around after taking the checkered flag to come down pit road, the greatest sight ever seen at a Nascar race took place.

"Every man on every crew has come out to the edge of pit lane to congratulate the man who has dominated everything there is to win in this sport,  except for this race, until today" said Mike Joy from the CBS booth as Earnhardt coasted down pit road giving high fives to every pit crew member.

It was then time for Earnhardt to celebrate how he wanted to. He turned into the infield, and began doing donuts in the grass. It was as if it was supposed to happen, because when Earnhardt drove away from his donuts, he left a big three right next to the track logo.

How fitting of an exclamation point.

Earnhardt won 34 races at Daytona over his career, far more than any other driver in history so it's safe to say that nobody dominated Daytona like Earnhardt did. Earnhardt drove into victory lane, sat in his car for a minute drinking coke and choosing a proper hat.

Then he emerged from his car, stood on the roof and raised his arms in celebration, and the crowd acknowledged not only the Daytona 500 champion, but they acknowledged their champion.

"I've got to thank the crew because they built me an awesome race car, and secondly thank the good lord for a great day. The Daytona 500 is ours, we won it, we won it, we won it." were some of Earnhardt's first words in his post race interview.

That victory and that day will never be forgotten by any Nascar fan in the years to come. That win solidified Earnhardt as the greatest driver of his time, and one of the greatest of all time.

That was a fun trip in time, wasn't it?

In 2008, we still haven't forgotten about the man, inside and outside of the car. Just three short years later we lost the man we all knew as the Intimidator, in the same race, the 2001 Daytona 500. In a pre race interview Earnhardt gave us a preview that at the time left us excited, but looking back at it, its just eerie about how true that statement was.

"You're going to see something you've never seen on FOX before."

Dale, you were absolutely right, and it's something we're never going to forget. We all continue to miss you.