The documented history of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing may have formally begun in 1969, but stock car racing began well before those racing events were sanctioned and regulated. However, in those nearly 50 years that NASCAR has been a governed racing entity, some historic events have taken place.
And while there’s no doubt that every longtime racing fan has their favorite moment, most can remember that incredible day in 1998 when Dale Earnhardt took the checkered flag at the Daytona 500.
It took the beloved driver 20 years to capture that coveted victory in his legendary No. 3 car, so when he finally did, the accomplishment didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by everyone at the track that day.
In an unprecedented move, crews from every team at the track, plus photographers, set up a makeshift receiving line on pit road where every crew member would have the opportunity to congratulate Dale as he drove by. And it’s a memory that stands with those vital members of the racing community to this day.
In a new video from the “NASCAR on Fox” team celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dale’s win at Daytona, some of the gentlemen who were part of those few minutes of NASCAR history remember that day.
Jeff Hammond, who at the time was the crew chief for No. 97 Chad Little, remembers, “It was a flood of pit crew members, all going to let him know, finally, you have accomplished what you’ve always wanted to accomplish. I think everybody just wanted to celebrate with him.”
Crews poured over the track’s barrier wall to offer a congratulatory handshake, some even reaching into the window to slap the ecstatic driver’s back.
Jeff Gordon crew member Tony Gibson sums it up remembering the feeling of, “The world is right, it will turn, it will rotate in the right direction now because Big E has won the Daytona 500.”
It was obvious that this wasn’t your typical NASCAR victory. Yes, it was about the win, but it was also about fortitude and determination, and it was a testimony to who Dale Earnhardt was and how he touched those who had the opportunity to work with him.
As Steve Barkdoll from the No. 33 Ken Schrader crew says, “I can remember like it was yesterday. I wish it was yesterday.” And Dale Jarrett crew member Brad Parrott adds, “I feel like he’s right here with us today. He’s letting me speak on behalf of a lot of people on pit road.”
Ironically, Dale passed away just three years later on the same track where he once felt that sweet victory. In the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, he and Ken Schrader made contact, and Dale was sent into the wall. It is believed that he died on impact.
His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., went on to two bittersweet victories at the Daytona 500, in 2004 and again in 2014.
“Our lives in racing go so fast. A lot of times you fail to stop and reflect on what’s important in the past,” Jeff Hammond adds.
The green flag will drop on the 2018 Daytona 500 field of drivers on Feb. 11 without an Earnhardt behind the wheel. However, Junior will be in the box as an analyst for “NASCAR on NBC.”
Best of luck to this season’s formidable competitors.