Sunday, February 10, 2008
Earnhardt's victory 10 years ago could still pay dividends
By David Newton
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at home in Mooresville, N.C., recovering from a concussion suffered in the Busch Series race, when his dad finally won the Daytona 500 10 years ago.
He was watching on television as his father drove the famous black No. 3 down pit road in what was called the longest receiving line in NASCAR history as members of every crew came out to congratulate him.
He was almost teary-eyed as he watched the pure joy in the smile underneath that signature mustache spread across the screen like a rainbow over the ocean.
"I was, 'S---, man. I should have stayed,' " the son of the late Dale Earnhardt said. "But I didn't think he was ever going to win it -- ever! I can remember being in the house going, 'f---.' "
A lot of people didn't think the seven-time Cup champion would win NASCAR's crown jewel after 19 failed attempts. He'd felt more disappointment in that race than anybody, none more than in 1990 when he blew a right rear tire on the final lap with a comfortable lead.
Three days after he had finally won and returned home, Earnhardt Jr. saw the relief in his face.
"He was complete, you know what I mean?" he said.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of that moment, Motorsports Authentics unveiled a black No. 3 Car of Tomorrow on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway and announced plans to sell a commemorative diecast of the vehicle.
Mark Dyer, the new president and CEO of MA, hopes sales will help invigorate a company that reportedly lost more than $50 million in 2007. He reminded that former MA chairman Fred Wagenhals mortgaged his home in 1994 to buy the license to sale Earnhardt merchandise.
"Dale Earnhardt built our company," Dyer said.
Earnhardt's win at Daytona in 1998 certainly was good for business. But like Earnhardt Jr.'s win in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night, it also was good for the sport.
Few can talk about the greatest moments in the 50-year history of the 500 without mentioning that race. Richard Childress, who supplied Earnhardt with cars for six of his seven titles, calls it the most memorable moment in the history of the event.
"Every time I think about that win it gives you cold chills," he said.
Childress recalled the big bear hug Earnhardt gave him in Victory Lane. He recalled sitting in a suite atop the speedway later watching fans pick up pieces of the infield grass that Earnhardt tore up with his postrace celebration.
"That day will always stand out because I know how special it was for him," Childress said.
It was special for just about everybody that was there or watching.
|A full-size Dale Earnhardt COT car was built. The die-cast isn't quite as large.|
"There couldn't have been anybody that wasn't happy after Dale Earnhardt won that race," three-time 500 champion Dale Jarrett said. "That was a huge day for our sport that we got our seven-time champion [that trophy], that he got that opportunity to visit Victory Lane in the race he cherished the most."
Jeff Gordon, who in 1997 became the youngest Daytona 500 champion, agreed.
"I don't think there was anybody, other than somebody who finished second that day, that was disappointed," he said. "I can honestly tell you there were times in this sport when people weren't happy about Dale Earnhardt winning because he won a lot.
"But it was that Daytona 500 that separated him and winning from all other events."
Earnhardt Jr. still can't believe he missed being there in person.
"He had to know that the times and the opportunities were running out and getting slim, the urgency had to be peaked," he said. "It had to be crazy emotionally for him. I didn't get a chance to be there and I was pretty upset about that, but such is life."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He had to know that the times and the opportunities were running out and getting slim, the urgency had to be peaked. It had to be crazy emotionally for him. I didn't get a chance to be there and I was pretty upset about that, but such is life.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.