February 15th and its relevance in the history of NASCAR can be summed up with one name: Earnhardt. On this day in 1998, Dale Earnhardt crossed the start finish line first to claim his only Daytona 500 victory. After years of trying and falling short, Dale finally won the one he had been chasing for so many seasons.
The race itself was rather uneventful, but the ending brought racing fans around the world to their feet and to tears. As Earnhardt led the field to the yellow and white flag, Mike Joy said, “20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500! Finally! The most anticipated moment in racing. If John Elway can win the Super Bowl, Dale Earnhardt said he could win the Daytona 500. And if he comes around under caution to complete this final lap, the last of long awaited victory will be his.” In the end, it truly was the most anticipated moment in racing history. Earnhardt had finally done it.
Earnhardt then brought his car to the pit lane, and one of the most incredible things happened that may never happen again in NASCAR. What seemed like every team member, from every team, greeted Earnhardt on pit lane to congratulate him. He then took his No. 3 to the tri-oval grass, to celebrate his win, with the thousands in attendance cheering as loud as they could. In victory lane, Earnhardt stated, “The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it, we won it, we won it!”
While the sport lost Dale Earnhardt during the closing laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, the Earnhardt name would return to victory lane at Daytona in February on the same day in 2004. Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced his No. 8 Chevrolet to victory lane, almost three years to the day his father raced his final race at Daytona International Speedway. Just like they did in 1998, the crowd at the track rose to their feet when Earnhardt Jr. took the lead from Tony Stewart with under 30 laps to go. They rose to their feet again when Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line to win the “Great American” race, just like his father did.
The date February 15th will also hold a significant meaning to all NASCAR fans, and we will remember both drivers contributions to this sport and their legacies. The name Earnhardt will always carry a huge meaning to NASCAR and to the date, February 15th.
Featured Image Credit: Charlotte Observer
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