Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s long wait for a Daytona 500 victory is inspiration for foursome.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 15, 2003
DAYTONA BEACH -- Four veteran Winston Cup drivers whose individual accomplishments are nothing short of spectacular have two things in common.
A gap on their resumes.
After all, the late Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 -- eventually.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of Earnhardt's long overdue win on Feb. 15, 1998, arguably the most hard-earned and popular Daytona 500 victory ever. Inspired by that win, veterans Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace hope this will be their lucky year.
Combined, they are 0-for-87.
"What Dale Earnhardt did every year, he kept beating on it," said Wallace, who makes his 21st start in NASCAR's premier race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. "You've just got to keep beating on it until you get it."
Earnhardt, who died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, chased an elusive Daytona 500 win for most of his career. Driving everything from sports cars to stock cars, Earnhardt won a record 34 races at Daytona. He owned this track.
But not this race.
Fate refused to be bullied by the Intimidator. In 1986, Earnhardt was running second to Geoffrey Bodine, about to make his move, when he ran out of fuel three laps from the finish. In 1990, he cut a tire while leading less than a mile from the finish, prompting his unforgettable line: "It ain't the Daytona 499." By the time Earnhardt's black No. 3 car struck a sea gull while leading in 1993, his plight had become almost comical.
Then, sweet relief.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Earnhardt said as he exited his car in Victory Lane in 1998, NASCAR's 50th anniversary season. "Can you believe it? The Daytona 500 is ours. We've won it, we've won it, we've won it."
Earnhardt won the race under caution after a backstretch crash on the second-to-last lap, holding off Bobby Labonte as the yellow and white flags waved together.
In a moving scene, Earnhardt accepted congratulations from members of nearly every Winston Cup team as he drove down pit road at a snail's pace on his way to Victory Lane. Later, Earnhardt strode into the press box high atop the Winston Tower, reached into his racing suit and pulled out an ugly stuffed monkey.
Finally, it was off his back.
Four venerable veterans can relate.
Martin, a 33-race winner whose runner-up finish in last year's championship was his fourth, is 0-for-18.
Wallace, the 1989 champion whose 54 victories rank ninth all-time, is 0-for-20.
Labonte, a two-time series champion and one of 16 men with multiple championships, is 0-for-24.
Rudd, who holds NASCAR's ironman record of 680 consecutive starts and ranks third all-time with 19 top-10 finishes in the championship, is 0-for-25.
All know they are running out of chances. Wallace, Labonte and Rudd are 46; Martin, the baby of the group, is 44. None is to the point he would sell his soul, but Wallace is ready to barter.
"People say, 'Would you rather win the championship or the Daytona 500?' " said Wallace, who has scored more points than any driver in the past 10 Daytona races, including the July race, but never won a points race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. "I have to think about that one hard. I want to win another championship, but I've already won one. I think I'd rather win the doggone Daytona 500 than the championship."
Martin, who on Friday won the International Race of Champions opener at Daytona, believes the use of restrictor plates to limit speeds, a practice begun in 1988, makes everyone a contender. And that works to his disadvantage.
"I've been trying a long time; everybody is trying real hard," said Martin, whose best 500 finish was third in 1995. "This is a real difficult one to win, especially for me, because it's not all about handling like most of the other racetracks."
Rudd, in his first season driving for the Wood Brothers, likes his chances Sunday. He was sixth in the Bud Shootout and third in his 125-mile qualifying race, and the No. 21 Ford finished second with Elliott Sadler behind the wheel in last year's 500.
"Nowadays, the equipment makes a lot more difference than the driver does at this particular racetrack," said Rudd, whose best finish was third in 1981.
"This track has been kind to the Wood Brothers over the years, so we look forward to racing the 500. As far as feeling like it owes me something, if seniority or coming here the most has anything to do with it, yeah, I guess you'd feel somewhat cheated. I'd love to get greedy and win this thing, but we'll see how it turns out."
It worked for Earnhardt.