DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. was The Intimidator, the driver who defiantly wore the black hat and did not give an inch on the asphalt.
Fellow drivers feared his No. 3 Chevrolet appearing in the rearview mirror, non-Earnhardt fans loathed his bump-and-run willingness and race crews helplessly watched him pile up wins at their expense.
But 25 years ago all those hard feelings evaporated into the sunny skies above the sport’s most famous speedway. NASCAR’s most accomplished active driver and biggest personality finally captured the one race during which he’d repeatedly failed to will himself to Victory Lane.
Earnhardt’s sole Daytona 500 title still resonates.
“It’s my favorite moment from the Daytona 500,” former Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. told the Orlando Sentinel. “Just seeing how many times he should have won, the heartbreaks, and seeing him finally win.”
Earnhardt’s victory over Bobby Labonte might not have been the been the most dramatic or historic in the event’s storied history but ranks among the most popular. Think Richard Petty’s 1979 win, his seventh during the Great American Race, David Pearson’s sole victory in the Daytona 500 at Petty’s expense, Jeff Gordon’s 1997 triumph at age 25 or Jimmie Johnson’s 2006 win, the most-watched ever.
Earnhardt compiled 76 Cup Series wins and seven season championships, a record he shares with Petty and Johnson. No victory was as hard-earned and well-earned as the ‘98 win in NASCAR’s showcase event.
The long-awaited victory kicked off the sport’s 50th season.
“Talk about synergy,” said Herb Branham, a longtime journalist, author and director of NASCAR communications.
Veteran play-by-play man Mike Joy, who will announce Sunday’s race for FOX, called Earnhardt’s win “a seminal moment in the sport,” having witnessed it from the TV booth for CBS.
“Because the lead-up to it had taken 20 years,” Joy told the Sentinel. “So much so that every NASCAR fan wanted to see him winning, maybe not at the expense of their favorite driver. But if their favorite driver couldn’t win it, they wanted Dale Earnhardt to win it.”
Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding the sport’s anniversary, plenty of build-up surrounded Earnhardt’s 20th attempt at the elusive win.
Working for ESPN at the time on a five-hour documentary on the sport, NASCAR historian Ken Martin sheepishly addressed to the elephant in the room during an Earnhardt interview.
“He said, ‘If I don’t, I’ll just have to live with it,’” Martin recalled. “But you can tell it was a burning, burning desire for him.”
After all, Earnhardt’s dominance had been legendary at Daytona International Speedway, site of 30 wins entering 1998. The victories included 2 Pepsi 400s, 4 IROC victories, 6 Clashes, 7 Busch Series wins and 11 qualification races.
“It would just kind of be almost like a foregone conclusion that he was going to win the 500,” Branham said.
Yet on Sundays of Speedweeks, Earnhardt was continually star-crossed.
During Derrike Cope’s astonishing 1992 win, Earnhardt blew a tire on the third turn of the final lap. A year earlier, he was hot on the trail of eventual winner Ernie Irvan on the second-to-last lap when Earnhardt tapped Davey Allison, spun around and crashed.
On Feb. 15, 1998, Earnhardt would not be denied.
The black No. 3 Chevrolet led 107 of 200 laps. But Earnhardt was not home free until the day’s third and final caution flag on Lap 198 allowed him to pass the lapped car of Rick Mast on the outside while pole-sitter Labonte lost his draft of Jeremy Mayfield.
From there, Earnhardt took the white and checkered flags, winning by several car lengths over Labonte.
Before he’d even reached the finish line, Earnhardt pumped his left fist outside the driver’s side window, signaling not only victory but also a mixture of elation and relief.
A scene soon played out burned into the memory of those who were there.
Members of practically all 43 teams, from crew chiefs to jackmen, lined the front stretch of Daytona International Speedway and crowded pit lane, forcing Earnhardt to drive his right-side tires on the edge of the infield grass.
“That’s something we’ve never seen in the sport, ever, before or after,” said Truex, now 42, who was a high schooler in New Jersey at the time. “It shows what he meant to the sport and Daytona meant to him.”
The No. 3 slowed to a crawl as its driver delivered high-fives along the way to Victory Lane.
“He wasn’t that popular universally, either with fans or the current crews,” Branham said. “He was a badass. He made a lot of enemies. But whatever animosity was stripped away by the moment.
“It was really something to see.”
In victory or defeat, Earnhardt was among the first to skedaddle on race days, Martin recalled.
This time in celebration the Intimidator’s visage softened and he partied like it was 1999.
“The joy that Dale exhibited in Victory Lane, the smile on his face was unlike any we’d ever seen from him,” Martin said. “Dale just enjoyed it to his fullest.”
Earnhardt never experienced a similar moment at Daytona International Speedway. Instead, the storied 2.5-mile oval would serve as the site of his final race and final breath.
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NASCAR’s larger-than-life figure didn’t survive a final-lap crash into the wall on Turn 4 during the 2001 Daytona 500. The tragedy devastated drivers, fans and a sport.
This week, though, Earnhardt’s biggest moment at his favorite track is on the minds of many.
Labonte is now an analyst for FOX, part-time racer and family man. The Daytona 500 is not among his 21 Cup Series wins. The 1998 race is the closest he came.
Years later, though, the 58-year-old fondly recalls the day and his battle with the best driver of his era.
“I wanted to win, because you don’t know if you’re ever gonna get another shot,” Labonte told the Sentinel. “But if you’re ever going to finish second anybody, you might as well finish second to the best.
“Looking back on it after all these years, seeing how the numbers lined up, what took place a few years later with him … sure I would have taken that win and said, ‘Sorry.’ But at the end of the day, it’s probably OK.”