Bookend Season for Dale Earnhardt

A bookend season for Earnhardt By Brett Borden NEW YORK (Nov. 27, 1998) Between the first race of the season and the exhibition race at its end, Dale Earnhardt had a rather ho-hum season. But because of its unforgettable start and finish,...

A bookend season for Earnhardt By Brett Borden

NEW YORK (Nov. 27, 1998) Between the first race of the season and the exhibition race at its end, Dale Earnhardt had a rather ho-hum season. But because of its unforgettable start and finish, 1998 will be a year forever remembered by "The Intimidator" and his fans.

Earnhardt began the year in grand style, capturing his first Daytona 500 after 19 previous attempts.

It was the moment many in NASCAR circles (and those who drive on them) had been waiting for. After all, this was the man whose mantel is stocked with more trophies than his favorite fishing pond has bass. And the Daytona 500 is the one race that the rest of the sporting world identifies with NASCAR. Somehow, the illustrious histories of both racing legend and legendary race had failed to intersect on the time line, at least in Victory Lane.

Until this year.

Earnhardt dodged seagulls, empty gas tanks, Dale Jarrett and all of the other racing demons that had conspired to keep him off the market for that choice piece of real estate in late February.

Not sure that the Intimidator knew his way to Victory Lane, all of the rival teams lined pit road to show him the way, and show their appreciation for a career that somehow wouldn't have had closure without this victory.

"It tops 'em all, buddy," said a tearful - that's right, tearful - Earnhardt from a place where he had always dreamed of being and now was. "It tops 'em all."

That win, the first in over a year for the man with 71 series victories on his resume, brought the pride back to a driver who also has earned seven series championships. Number eight, he assured his fans, would soon be delivered.

But it was not to be. After starting at Daytona from the second row, Earnhardt suffered through an average start of 32.75 in the next dozen non-superspeedway races. Auto racing can be like dog racing sometimes -- if you aren't the lead dog, the scenery never changes. So team owner Richard Childress decided to shake things up, moving crew chief Larry McReynolds over to his other team, where Mike Skinner was at the wheel, and bringing Skinner's crew chief Kevin Hamlin to Earnhardt's team in McReynolds' place.

It was a chemistry experiment that paid off, though with less-than-spectacular results. Earnhardt's qualifying average pre-shakeup was 28.5, post-shakeup it was 25.1. Earnhardt was able to qualify for the show in the first round in 10 of 20 races with Hamlin, including eight of the first 11. It was something he had been able to do only twice in 13 tries with McReynolds. It enabled Earnhardt & Co. to spend more time on race set-ups than qualifying set-ups, which translated into better finishes. With McReynolds, his average finish was 18.6. With Hamlin, it was 14.55. All in all, it was a season that didn't live up to its opening day promise. Earnhardt expected an eighth championship, but he had to settle for eighth in the point standings. There would still be, however, another reason to celebrate the 20th full season of his illustrious career.

Another Dale Earnhardt arrived on the NASCAR scene in 1998. He had his father's penchant for running up front, both on the track and in the points. 'Little E' -- as Dale Earnhardt Jr. quickly became known -- competed in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division where, as what amounted to a rookie, he dominated. It looked just like one of his father's NASCAR Winston Cup Series seasons a decade or so ago, and culminated in a championship. Rivals had to be muttering to themselves -- just when they start catching a break from one Earnhardt, here comes another to make them all start racing for second again.

Sponsors noticed, and Coca-Cola came forward with a plan to pit Earnhardt vs. Earnhardt. It would come in the exhibition '98 NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi - Coca-Cola 500 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, of all places. Legendary father against rising son, each in Coca-Cola-sponsored cars.

Neither driver was able to win the race, but that hardly seemed to matter. Dale Jr.'s performance indicated that he could hold his own against the "big boys" of NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing. He wasn't getting ahead of himself with this opportunity, but he was getting ahead of his namesake, finishing closer to the front than his father. The senior Earnhardt didn't mind, he was too busy telling people how cool it is to be asked occasionally if he happens to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s father.

And so the 1998 season came to a close for the man they call "Ironhead." His collection of gold and silver trophies, each representing a great moment in his career, got a pretty good set of bookends -- real and figurative -- to fill out the mantel this year.

Source: NASCAR Online

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Dale Jarrett , Mike Skinner , Kevin Hamlin