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Friday, March 1, 2024

Why Dale Earnhardt Is Regarded as the Best Daytona 500 Driver Despite Only One Win

Daytona International Speedway and Dale Earnhardt are almost synonymous and that too, for good reason. The Intimidator is the all-time leader in victories at the track with 34 wins. But there’s just one edition of the races held at this famed 2.5-mile racetrack in Florida that the man was able to win just once after trying for two whole decades. And it is the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt won a pair of points races at Daytona during the summer, aced 11 Daytona 500 qualifying sessions, won seven Xfinity Series races, six Budweiser Shootouts, and even emerged victorious in four races in the International Race of the Champions series but never the coveted 500 until 1998.

Even then, if a list is prepared with the names of the drivers to have had the best percentage of top-15 finishes in the Daytona 500 of all time, Earnhardt’s name would unmistakably come at the top. But with just one win, how is that even possible?

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His best shot to conquer the historic race back came in 1990. Despite leading the field, a flat tire on the last lap pulled his momentum down and sadly, he had to walk away dejected, with a P5 finish, whereas Derrike Cope swam to the victory lane. In 1993, Earnhardt again showed up strong, but Dale Jarrett passed him on the closing lap and snatched Earnhardt’s cherished dream.

But on the greener side of things, the #3 legend finished as the runner-up in three Daytona 500s in 1984 (to Cale Yarborough), in 1995 (to Sterling Martin), and 1996 (to Dale Jarrett).

This means nobody but Earnhardt has a better overall performance at NASCAR’s most loved track.

The happiest day in Dale Earnhardt’s career was celebrated with a twist

It was 1998. Dale Earnhardt led a total of 107 laps, including the final 61 of the 250 lap-long race, and finally bagged the checkered flag. Rarely do crew members from every race team line up in the victory lane and applaud a winner, but it did happen that day.

But the way the man himself celebrated his victory was indeed funny. After celebrating his victory with his fans, Earnhardt walked up to the Daytona International Speedway press box for the champion’s interview, took a monkey (of course, a stuffed toy) out of his shoulder, and flung it aside joking, “Finally got that monkey off my back!”

However, the veteran racer had always believed that he could do it. His then-boss Richard Childress said, “I don’t think he ever believed he’d never win the 500. He’d won enough other races down here to know he could win the 500, but there was always something that got in his way. A flat tire, a caution flag when he didn’t need it, a pit stop when he was leading… it was always something.” Luckily, everything came together at the right time. Childress admitted that it was the happiest that he had seen Dale Earnhardt.

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