Every man of every crew lined up for one driver taming a race that broke his heart countless times. Does this sound familiar? Well, if not – here is the story of the 1998 Daytona 500.
For 20 years, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was chasing the trophy for NASCAR’s most coveted event – the Daytona 500. When he started out his career, the Daytona 500 was the second race of the season, following the annual season-opener at Riverside. However, since 1959, NASCAR’s largest, most anticipated event has been the Daytona 500. It might have taken a long time, but Earnhardt finally captured the checkered flag in 1998.
But what was so special about the 1998 Daytona 500 that led to Earnhardt’s victory? Well, after having plenty of bad luck in past Daytona 500’s such as 1997 edition of the spectacle, but flipped over multiple times with a handful of laps to go. Thanks to the help of his crew chief, Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt finally captured the checkered flag ahead of the pack in 1998, and it is a memory which has become one of the most spoken about races in NASCAR history.
“ Going back to my first race with Dale which was the 1997 500 and I knew how bad he wanted to win this race and we had a very up and down day. We had a terrible day on pit road as far as pit stops. The pit crew looked like the bad news bears – it was just awful. But lo, and behold, with about 20-25 to go, I looked up and there were no more stops to make, so soon we were leading the race because that man knew how to get to the front. With about 18 to go, I looked at Richard Childress because I was starting to think ‘son of a gun – the very first race we’re together, we’re going to win the Daytona 500.’ I looked at Richard and said ‘what do you think?’ He went ‘been here way too many times. Been so close so many times, I promise you something will go wrong before it’s over,” McReynolds said in an exclusive interview with Speedway Digest.
“With nine to go, I knew what he was talking about. We were upside down, flipping down the back straightaway. To go the whole 1997 season and go winless with Dale Earnhardt was devastating. They had to hide all sharp objects from me. I thought I was going to have to hire a body guard. Fans were condemning me saying that Ford had sent me over there to sabotage Chevrolet and sabotage Dale Earnhardt’s career. I went ‘oh my gosh this is awful.”
During that 1997 season, Earnhardt went winless for just the second time in his full-time career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spanning 1979 until 2000 before his untimely death in 2001.
Moving forward to 1998 – something was different about the environment at Richard Childress Racing. McReynolds had begun to prepare Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 car in the middle of the summer in 1997. Even while they struggled to find victory lane, McReynolds understood how badly Earnhardt wanted to win the Daytona 500 after capturing seven championships throughout the course of his career. After winning the Daytona 500 with Davey Allison in 1992, McReynolds knew the key to success for NASCAR’s largest event, and that key came into play in 1998.
“There was just something different about that whole off-season. The effort we put into that car. That car was built during the summer months of 1997 – of course, there was no limit on testing back then. I’d say that car had probably been in the wind tunnel four to six times. We probably tested it before the 1997 calendar year ended at least three or four times at Talladega. Dave Marcis was doing the testing, and he knew what Dale wanted to feel in a racecar. From the first laps he turned in that car, he went ‘he’s going to like this racecar,” he said.
“It was one of those cars that where – when he would turn it into the corner, the RPM would almost go up. It was almost better in yaw than in a straight line. Speedweeks – it was almost a perfect Speedweeks. It was one of those Speedweeks where the car was so fast and so good that you almost wondered if we’re going to screw this up. We’re going to be the ones to beat ourselves. You almost wondered when something was going to go bad. We were fast in ever practice. He loved the way it drove. We won the Budweiser Duel qualifying races.”
But guess what? You know how there was always something that happened to put an abrupt end to Earnhardt’s chance at winning the Daytona 500? Well, that almost happened in 1998.
After winning the Budweiser Duel (back then it was called the Gatorade 125), Earnhardt’s crew noticed that he was sick. It turned out that he had a horrific flu. However, McReynolds had a plan.
“We won the Duel race and Dale was sick as a dog – flu. Terrible. He couldn’t even hold water down. I could just look at him in victory after what was then a 125-mile race, and this guy was sick. We had to get him healthy before Sunday. He has to run four times this distance. So we were standing there in victory lane and after all of the hoopla winded down, I said ‘you aren’t feeling very good are you?’ He said ‘Larry, I feel the worse I have felt in a long time.’ I said ‘okay, let’s do this – we have three practices left, two tomorrow and Happy Hour after the Busch Series race on Saturday.”
The plan was for Earnhardt to skip the morning practice, get some medicine in the infield care center, and it would allow the team to take their time putting the race engine in the car while he got better. Guess what? Like he did so many times throughout his life – Earnhardt surprised the life out of his team.
“It was a great plan until he comes into the racetrack feeling much better. With five minutes before that second practice on Friday, it started to pour down rain. That practice got rained out. We were okay. We still got another full hour to go. I wish we had a few laps on this engine, but we got an hour to go,” said McReynolds who won 23 races with six different drivers in 16 years.
However, with Earnhardt’s luck – after miraculously getting better, his engine started to go. The team attempted to fix it, and they probably could have raced with it, but it just wasn’t worth the risk in McReynolds’ mind.
“When we started Happy Hour on Saturday, he didn’t even get to pit road well. Something’s wrong with the engine. He goes back around, comes back in, pulls it into the garage area, the guys lift up the hood and make sure there’s no spark plug wire off. They changed the spark plugs, they looked at this and they looked at that. Send him back out there – he got about half way down the back straightaway and he said ‘damn it guys I’m telling you, something is not right with this engine.’ So he comes back in, we pull up the hood again. They start looking, looking and looking. They pulled the valve covers off and sure enough – we got a broke rocker arm.”
McReynolds began to question everything about the engine, and evidently made the decision to change the power house on the No. 3 Chevrolet.
“They decided to change that rocker arm. It was actually a bad pushrod that broke the rocker arm. They decided to change the pushrod, change the rocker arm and I’m looking now – and Happy Hour was half gone. We still had not made a lap with this car and this race engine. Lo, and behold, it ran fine. We ran that 30 minutes of practice and the car was just as good, in fact it was probably the best it had been. It was almost as if the slicker the track got, the better the car was. We felt good about the car, but we had to make a decision about this engine. I’m a big why person? Why did that rocker arm break and why the same for that pushrod? If we don’t change this engine – I know we don’t want to start the 500 with an untested engine, but that’s why we have backup engines. Why did that rocker arm break? Why did that pushrod break?”
Once the green flag waved, Earnhardt set sail for the front of the pack. The GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet led 107 of the 200 laps during the 1998 Daytona 500. Even with a dominant car, the finish came down to a final pit stop. McReynolds and Earnhardt opted to take two tires, and came out first off of pit road which ended up being the race winning move.
“We led that thing all day long. Pit crew was spot on. It was a perfect day. The last pit stop – I had to make the call of two or four tires, and I elected to go with two as a lot of competitors did. We won the battle off pit road. Then, to see that caution flag waving knowing we hadn’t gotten to the white yet,” he said. “Of course that was back in the days where we were racing back to the caution and you still had to run that last lap. We took the white flag, but the spotter was reminding him ‘Dale, make sure you run this last lap.’ Well, hell he ran that last lap about as fast as he had any other lap. He wanted to make sure that nothing got in his way.”
Earnhardt concluded his Daytona career with 28 wins in the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, in the Busch Clash (Sprint Unlimited) and in the qualifying races – including 10 straight wins in the Duels from 1990 until 1999.
“The neatest thing – knowing how bad he wanted to win that race, in victory lane after things had kind of settled down a little bit, I kind of took a step back and captured the moment in my mind. To watch Dale and Teresa Earnhardt, quite honestly, Richard and Judy Childress – how many years had they been trying? Richard for a number of years as a driver, but to watch how much they were enjoying it. It was like a dad watching his kids open up their presents on Christmas morning. That is a snapshot in time that I will never, ever forget. When he climbed out of that car and beat that roof and said ‘we done it, we done it, we won the Daytona 500,’ that is just a moment I am proud to be a part of.”