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Dale Earnhardt Scores First Victory in 40th Daytona 500

17 February 1998

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.-- After 20 frustrating years of near misses in stock car racing's premier event, Dale Earnhardt began NASCAR's 50th anniversary season by scoring another NASCAR Winston Cup Series milestone, scoring his first victory in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, who before Sunday had won a record 30 races at Daytona International Speedway, made the 31st the biggest of his career, finally ending a 20-year drought in the "Great American Race."

Driving the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet, the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion held off many late lap challenges from drivers such as Jeremy Mayfield, Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader, but held on to win under caution over runnerup Bobby Labonte.

"I finally did it," exclaimed Earnhardt. "We've tried so hard for so many years. Nobody can ask us anymore why we can't win the Daytona 500. My eyes watered up in the car on that last lap coming to get the checkered flag. It's just unbelievable.

"All week long they've been saying this is your week.' I can't believe we won it in the fashion we did. We raced em hard all day and I knew from the beginning we had a good race car. We've worked so hard and for so long to win the Daytona 500, the feeling is pretty awesome. I know Ralph Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett and T. Wayne (Robertson) and all them folks up there were looking after us."

The race was slowed only three times by caution, boosting the winning average speed to 172.712 mph. The opening 315 miles were run incident-free, with the yellow flag finally waving on the 126th circuit for debris after Ward Burton cut a tire. John Andretti and Robert Pressley spun on the 174th lap for the second incident. The day's final caution came out on lap 199 involving a spin by Andretti and Lake Speed.

The lead changed hands 13 times, with eight drivers leading the event.

The Daytona 500 ended the 40th Annual Daytona Speedweeks, which opened two weeks ago when the team of Gianpiero Moretti, Arie Luyendyk, Yannick Dalmas and Didier Theys won the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car classic. Other Speedweeks winners included Rusty Wallace, in the Bud Shootout At Daytona; Kenny Irwin Jr. in the FirstPlus Financial 200; Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin in the Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Races; Jeff Gordon in the International Race of Champions; Mike Swaim Jr. in the Discount Auto Parts 200 presented by ACDelco Rapidfire NASCAR Goody's Dash Series race; and Joe Nemechek in the NAPA Auto Parts 300.

Action resumes at Daytona International Speedway with Daytona 200 Week, scheduled for February 25-March 8. Featured events include the Daytona Supercross By Honda on March 7 and the "World's Greatest Motorcycle Race," the 57th Annual Daytona 200 By Arai on March 8.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to Daytona for the July 4 Pepsi 400, which will be run under the lights for the first time. For tickets to Daytona 200 Week, the Pepsi 400 or any other Speedway event call (904) 253-7223.