This is one of my original pieces from Bleacher Report, originally wrote on January 14, 2010. This day is remembering the darkest day in NASCAR, where it’s icon was taken away from us. Was he protecting the field so his team was guaranteed a 1-2 finish? Was he aware of what could possibly happen?
But this day is not about remembering the sadness, the loss, and the void that remains from his loss. Instead, we remember the moments we smiled, cheered, and were overwhelmed with excitement.
So, it’s time to go back in time, and remember how I felt in 1998.
When I started getting into NASCAR back in the 1992, one of the first things I heard about was Dale Earnhardt and the Daytona 500. I wasn’t a fan of Earnhardt, but a close friend of my father was.
We’d jab one another about who to cheer for every Sunday during the season. I soon became a fan of Jeff Gordon, and I got the jabs about things like how the car looked.
But, in the back of my mind, I knew what the Daytona 500 meant to Earnhardt and the entire NASCAR fan base. Stories of how he came close to winning but failed were put in my head practically from the get-go. Running out of fuel, his infamous seagull incident, and cutting a tire down were planted in my mind.
My first Daytona 500 was in 1993, so needless to say I was curious if Earnhardt could break the streak. He led laps, stayed near the front, and I believed it was getting to be over.
Then the final lap came and here comes Dale Jarrett on a tear going into turn one with a push from Geoff Bodine. He gets the position out of turn two and begins pulling away. I hoped that something would come around and Earnhardt would make the move, but Jarrett just held on and got the win.
He became the bridesmaid on a day where he dominated, and had to wait another 364 days to get another opportunity.
Sure, Earnhardt won the championship that year, but he knew that Daytona escaped him again.
Two years later, he had another strong opportunity. There I was, in my living room wearing a Jeff Gordon tee hoping for my driver to get his first win in the race. But, after a miscue on pit road, that chance went out the window.
So, I then went with Earnhardt, praying he would get the victory. When he made the call late in the race to pit for tires when everyone else stayed out, even I was skeptical.
Starting 14th, I thought there was little chance for a victory. Then, he got into the top 10 with less than nine laps left. Six laps remaining, the black No. 3 is running third, then two laps later he’s runner up.
I started to believe that he could get the job done. All that was left was Sterling Marlin, who was going for his second straight win at Daytona.
Despite making every possible move to get the lead, Earnhardt once again settled for second place. I began to wonder if he would ever get the opportunity to celebrate that victory.
The following year he started the race from the pole, his best opportunity to begin the race. He fell back at one point, but battled back.
However, like years prior, he found himself behind the leader as the laps began winding down. I kept my hopes up, as he had a lot of help behind him.
Just like 1993, he found himself behind Jarrett for the victory. The white flag comes out and he begins looking every which way to get around the No. 88 Ford Quality Care Thunderbird. He went low coming out of turn four, but Jarrett made the block. He went high, but had no momentum.
He finished second again, and Earnhardt fans began to think maybe he wasn’t going to get the job done.
At the same time, I was able to make jabs at my dad’s friend about Earnhardt, especially since he wasn’t winning races as often.
The 1997 race was good and evil for me as I wanted Gordon to win. But as strong as Earnhardt was, I knew it would be tough.
And then came the infamous pass. Gordon goes for the lead out of turn two, then clips Earnhardt and his car goes for a tumble on the backstretch. I felt horrible for the fans, and also had to endure the wrath of the Earnhardt fans around me.
Gordon won the race, but I had little time to celebrate as I had to take all the harsh words from the No. 3 clad fans that season.
A couple people at the local bar made a sign for my dad’s friend for Christmas. It had a picture of him wearing his Earnhardt hat as if it was a letter to Santa.
The caption read, “Dear Santa. I am only asking for one wish this Christmas. All I wish for is that Dale Earnhardt win another race. Please Santa, make that happen.”
Underneath his picture, it had the response, “Dear Dave. I do wishes, not miracles. Santa.”
Sure, I got a laugh out of it, but he insisted that the picture stay up there until Earnhardt won a race.
As the 50th Anniversary season of NASCAR began, the focus was on Earnhardt as the cars prepared for Daytona. On that cloudy Sunday afternoon, tensions were high. My family was watching with me, and they had no clue of what to expect.
With every lap, Earnhardt looked extremely competitive, and the fans knew he was in the running. But, even Earnhardt himself began wondering what could happen to keep the victory from him again.
A late caution brought the field close together, but Earnhardt had the best view out front and had control. I shed the colors of the rainbow and the No. 24 and began cheering on the No. 3.
When John Andretti and Lake Speed wrecked coming to the white flag, at that moment I knew the race would be over. I could hear Mike Joy on the broadcast make one of the most historic calls in racing.
I remember it so vividly.
“Earnhardt uses the lapped car of Rick Mast as a pick. 20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500.”
At that instant, whatever driver the fans cheered for didn’t matter. I didn’t care that my driver fell out of the race. It was the moment that people wondered if it would ever happen, and finally did.
I was in tears at the end of the race, and felt the emotion of Joy as he made the other call on pit road after the cool down lap.
“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 this race. Until now.”
Seeing Earnhardt carve the No. 3 in the grass was one of those instances where you remember where you were when it happened. I can remember that not one fan left the stands, because they wanted to see Earnhardt celebrate his victory.
I knew that victory meant so much to so many. Three years later when Earnhardt passed away, I was devastated not just for me, but every fan of the sport. I wore an Earnhardt shirt to school the next day, shocking everyone that knew me as a Gordon fan.
They kept asking why I wore it and had I changed my ways. They didn’t say much after I revealed the heartbreaking news.
Even after his passing, that day remains with me as a reminder of what Earnhardt meant to us, the common fan. It was a weight lifted off all the people involved in NASCAR. The officials, crews, media members and fans did not have to ask when Earnhardt would win the Great American Race.
The Intimidator answered that question in victory lane. It was three words, repeated three times from the driver of the black No. 3.
“We won it. We won it. We won it.”