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The Callahan Report: Earnhardt Gets Long Overdue Daytona 500 Victory

15 February 1998

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel

DAYTONA BEACH, FL: The wait is over. After nineteen years of trying, Dale Earnhardt has won the crown jewel of NASCAR racing. Earnhardt won the 40th running of Daytona 500. It was his first win in 60 NASCAR Winston Cup races.

Dale Earnhardt
Earnhardt Wins first Daytona 500

The seven-time NASCAR champion has won more races at the famed Daytona International Speedway than any other driver. He has won the Pepsi 400 (4th of July), The Bud Shootout, a ton of qualifying races, and finally . . . The Daytona 500. It was Earnhardt's 30th victory at Daytona. This one was surely his biggest and proudest.

It was a victory that was long overdue. It is rare when a NASCAR team is sincerely happy when a competitor beats them. Things were different this time. Earnhardt is truly a living legend. His status showed as he came into the pits after the race. Every NASCAR team lined the pits. He graciously accepted all their congratulations. After the "high fives" and handshakes, Earnhardt paid tribute to the fans with a series of donuts. Earnhardt tore up the manicured grass between the pits and the tri-oval. Earnhardt then headed to victory lane amidst a swarm of officials, fans, and security personnel.

Earnhardt said earlier in the week, "There are a lot of wins left in Dale Earnhardt." He proved it today. He continued that confidence in victory lane as he said, "We're going to win a championship this year."

Dale Earnhardt
Earnhardt: A Proud and Deserving Winner

Earnhardt won a fast paced race. There were only three caution periods. The final caution came out as the last lap started. The largest crowd ever to witness the Daytona 500 erupted with cheers as the white flag and yellow flag waved together.

With the skies threatening in the last 25 laps of the race, the contest got interesting. It was "every man for himself" as the dash to the end began. The front pack (seven cars) broke away to decide the 1998 Daytona 500. With five laps left, things got interesting.

After traveling in a freight train style much of the afternoon, the final five laps looked like a Saturday night sprint car race with cars going high, low, and everywhere between. Bobby Labonte came on strong in the final laps to finish second. He was the polesitter. He was the leader early in the race. He never drifted too far away from the top ten all afternoon.

Jeremy Mayfield was the surprise of the afternoon. The driver has found new life by teaming up with Penske Racing this season. Rusty Wallace is Mayfield's teammate, going with the thinking that "two heads are better than one." Mayfield proved that theory. He blazed to a third place finish.

Ken Schrader gets the "tough guy" award for the week. Thursday, Schrader had a horrifying crash during one of the Gatorade Twin 125s. Schrader suffered a broken sternum in the accident. He withdrew from the Busch Grand National race held yesterday in Daytona. The rest and relaxation paid off. Schrader started 31st and charged his way to a fourth place finish.

The other half of the Penske South stable looked as though he would win the 500 for much of the afternoon. Rusty Wallace was a leader and a strong contender all afternoon. When the scramble for the finish started at the end of the race, Wallace fell to fifth. He was one of the first drivers to drive up along Earnhardt to give him a wave, saluting the seven-time champion on his first Daytona 500 victory.

Defending series champion, Jeff Gordon dominated much of the middle part of the race. Gordon was part of the breakaway at the end. With three laps to go, Gordon faltered and fell through the field. Gordon finished 16th.

The biggest race in NASCAR is in the books. Now, the focus changes. It is time for the stars of NASCAR to set their sites on the Winston Cup Championship. It is a long and difficult battle. There will be many stories between now and November. America's greatest spectator sport is in full swing. In the end, the 1998 Winston Cup Champion is crowned. Come to think of it, these heros of speed will all be champions.

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