Andy Lyons /Allsport

20 years later, memories of Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win remain fresh

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After so many years of trying and so many years of frustrations, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 on this date 20 years ago.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!’’ he said in Victory Lane.

“Can you believe it? We won.’’

One of the sport’s greatest drivers had won everything else during Daytona Speedweeks but the sport’s biggest race until Feb. 15, 1998.

No more heartbreaks.

But Earnhardt wasn’t the only one celebrating. That day remains memorable to many who witnessed it either at Daytona or watching on TV.

Here are their memories of seeing Earnhardt win the Daytona 500 for the only time in his career:

Austin Dillon (age 7 in 1998)

“That was a special moment. I didn’t really know what was going on at the time, how big of a moment I was being a part of (in Victory Lane). I remember doing the hat dance. I thought that was really cool. I was collecting a lot of hats that day. But the significance of everything, I was just kind of celebrating with everybody. I didn’t really know what was going on.’’

Ty Dillon (age 5 in 1998)

“That memory is really important to me. My brother and I were at MRO, which is where all the kids still go. My grandma ran over and said we won the race, and we had no clue what the significance of that race was but we knew we were going to Victory Lane. I remember just the excitement and the fun and everybody was so excited. That hit me pretty deep. I was 5 years old. From the time I stepped in a race car for the first time and when I won my first race, that’s when it hit me that it was what I wanted to do because I wanted to live that moment that I had in Victory Lane when I was 5 years old. That thrill of victory in that moment was what drives me still to this day to be a race car driver.”

CHOCOLATE MYERS (Gas man for the No. 3 team that won)

“So, we finally do our celebration and our Victory Lane and our high-fives and we’ve got to go home. We’ve got to be at work the next day. There is no party for the team back then. For me, (wife) Caron and I either had the third car or a truck load of parts so we’ve got a dooley and a trailer and I’m thinking the third car in it that we’ve got to leave here. We’ve got to drive home man. It’s already late. We’re in traffic. It’s like 9:30 or 10 o’clock (at night) and we’re in Jacksonville, and I’m going I ain’t going to make it. I started at 5 o’clock this morning, not going to make it.

“So we decided we’re going to get us a (hotel) room, we’re going to get up early the next morning, maybe five and get home as soon as we can. I know this sounds stupid and I know this sounds corny … I walked into the Holiday Inn and the lady said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said ‘We just won the Daytona 500!’’ It was the first human being outside of the race track that I saw that I could tell it to. It was like the greatest thing I was ever able to say. We just won the Daytona 500!’’

RAY EVERNHAM (Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in that 1998 race)

“Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s any secret that I was a Dale Earnhardt fan even before I came to Cup. It was always mixed emotions every time we were racing with them.

“I remember (I) probably busted up a stopwatch or clipboard when we busted that cylinder because we were running third with three, four laps to go. It was right there towards the end. We were going to be in the mix because our car was really good. I think we broke a valve spring or something like that. It was about finishing, not getting way behind in points.

“Honestly, I don’t remember what happened at the end of the race. I realized when it was over that Earnhardt won it. I started to walk back to the pit area. I saw everybody lining up. I jumped in line with them to shake his hand. Again, an honor to have raced against him. To be there, shake his hand, be part of that line, definitely did that.

“Really happy that we were there that day.  As I said, I did get to shake his hand.

Aric Almirola (age 13 in 1998)

“I wasn’t at that race, but I remember watching it. Actually, I think that year we were on a ski vacation out west in Colorado, so we were sitting in our log cabin that we had rented for the week and watched that race.  That was a really special race to watch and to finally see Dale Earnhardt win the Daytona 500, and I think what made that such a fan favorite and even a garage and industry favorite was people had seen how close he had been so many times. 

“I think the first couple times that he lost the fans that loved him were devastated and the fans that hated him were happy. Eventually, after the guy lost it and was so close so many times, hell, even the people that didn’t like him wanted to see him win the Daytona 500. I was a huge Dale Earnhardt fan. My grandfather was a big Dale Earnhardt fan, so our whole family was big Dale Sr. fans. I can’t remember exactly how I celebrated, but I’m sure I was jumping up and down on the couch and happy and excited, and then probably threw my ski gear on and went and hit the chair lift.”

Kyle Busch (age 12 in 1998)

“I’d have to say I must have been at home and laying on grandma’s floor, sitting on grandma’s floor, staring at the television, watching that race. That’s about what I can remember. I remember the year before vividly watching that race and thinking, Dale is going to finally win this thing. Then he’s on his lid just a few laps before the end. That was kind of where we were every single off‑season, every single February, because we weren’t racing yet. I would have been sitting there watching the television, seeing whether or not Dale was finally going to be able to win the Daytona 500. was a Jeff Gordon fan number one, but from there I liked to see Dale win, I didn’t mind seeing Rusty win, I didn’t mind seeing Dale Jarrett win. I was watching, learning, seeing the sport evolve and play out, never really saying, I can’t stand that guy, I hate that guy. I was never that guy.”

Martin Truex Jr. (age 17 in 1998)

“I was on the couch with my dad, watching the race. Of course, Dale was my driver. To watch the heartbreaks over the years, then for him to finally win it, it was like watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl. It really was. It was so exciting. It was unbelievable that he finally got it. It was like you knew at some point in time he was going to win it, right? Until he did, you’re like, What the heck is going to happen next?

“That was fun. Then just watching him drive down pit road, the congratulations he got, that’s something I remember like it was yesterday. I mean, I remember exactly where I was sitting on the couch. It was like one of the coolest moments in racing history, so yeah I remember it.’’

Justin Allgaier (age 11 in 1998)

“We were at home watching the race and a buddy of mine and I were outside … riding a motorized scooter and he fell and broke his arm. All of us were Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans at the time. His family was diehard Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans. They waited to go to the hospital to have his arm checked out until after we saw the end of the race because there was a good chance he was going to win. Quite an interesting ordeal but at the same time it was cool to be able to watch that on TV.

Elliott Sadler (age 22 in 1998)

“I was here as a pit crew member for my brother who was running the Busch Series at the time. We stayed over and watched the race as a fan. You know it was big at the time because he tried to win it for 20 straight years. I grew up an Earnhardt fan. It was neat for me to be here and see that. I think in my mind will I ever hear the fans that loud again in this sport? I’m not sure.’’

ANDY PETREE (car owner for Ken Schrader in 1998)

We had a challenging week, and Kenny got hurt pretty bad. We had to run our Clash car, and it turned out to be the best car we had. Drove up through there. So fun to watch. He got up there and looked like we were actually going to have a shot. There were two laps to go, we’re getting in that position in fourth with a run and the caution came out. Dang it! I remember being mad we didn’t have a shot at it. They threw the caution and white flag. I was kind of disappointed, and then as I’m walking up pit road, right as I saw the nose of the 3 coming down, I thought “Dadgummit, he finally won the thing.” Me and him were tight. I kind of made my way up to the car, and we had this really special moment where we made eye contact, congratulated him and he was beaming from ear to ear. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him so happy.’’

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Mother’s tears a celebration of a journey more than a decade in the making

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — After her son Garrett raced to a career-high fifth-place finish in Saturday’s quintuple-overtime Xfinity race, Bethanie Smithley could not contain her emotions.

Memories flashed to when he wanted to race even though neither parent knew anything about the sport other than what they viewed from the stands. Then there was the sign that what they were doing was the right thing. And the memories of how pillow cushions helped Garrett’s racing career.

All that was before Garrett joined JD Motorsports, an underfunded team that is at the track each weekend but not often noticed.

He overcame an early spin and avoided the late crashes to collect his third career Xfinity top-10 finish, spurring a family celebration on pit road afterward.

“It’s the satisfaction that going out on a limb for your child when you don’t necessarily want to go out there … is worth it,’’ Bethanie said between tears.

“It’s the payback. It’s the affirmation that we made the right decision and that all the sacrifices we made, the family vacations we didn’t take, it was worth it.’’

Garrett Smithley, a 25-year-old from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, pointed to the Daytona International Speedway stands and about where he and his family sat 12 years ago.

A passion grew.

He started racing in 2007 in Bandolero cars.

“I had to learn to tow a race trailer,’’ Bethanie Smithley said.

“I had to learn how to be crew chief,’’ said RK Smithley, Garrett’s dad.

One of the requests the family made before buying a Bandolero car was that they be showed how to set it up.

“We could have never dreamed this would turn into a profession,’’ Bethanie said. “We thought it would be a short-term hobby. Every time he’s moved forward there’s just been some provision that I felt was divine providence for him to be a race car driver.’’

The first time Garrett went to test a Legends car, they pulled up to the shop. When Bethanie opened the truck door to exit, Bill Elliott stood 2 feet away.

“He was one of our favorite NASCAR drivers,’’ she said. “To me that was kind of a sign that it’s going to be OK that your son wants to go racing. All along the right person has come along at the right time to help him move forward.’’

While driving a No. 43 Legends car, Garrett’s talent was spotted and he was invited to a Richard Petty Driver Search.

Former Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope saw Garrett at a test, leading to Garrett’s ARCA debut in 2014. He shared a car at the test with another driver, who was much bigger. Garrett’s parents brought pillows from their hotel couch so he could fit in the seat.

The following year, Garrett made his Camping World Truck Series debut with the Mittler Brothers, the same team Carl Edwards made his series debut with in 2002. Garrett is in his third season with JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

“Johnny went on a limb,’’ Garrett said. “He had some better deals. He said I really want you to drive my 0 car.’’

As often happens the night before the first race of the season, Garrett couldn’t sleep Friday. He posted a picture on Twitter after midnight of the lit Daytona stands with the note: “Never taking this for granted.’’

“You come so close to not making it and not making it and not making it … this feels really special,’’ Garrett said.

Enough to make a mother cry.

“Along the way somebody has always noticed that talent,’’ Bethanie said. “I fully believe it will lead to him being in Cup one day. I don’t know how long.

“I also say because he’s done so well at these superspeedways, I think one of these days he’ll be in Victory Lane, although right now it feels like we’re there.’’

Instead, she and RK stood behind pit wall. The sun faded behind the stands and sweepers cleaned pit road. A few people pushed team pit boxes into position to be loaded onto trucks and head to the next race. RK and Bethanie were alone.

As they walked away, she turned to one person working on the pit boxes that she knew.

“I need a hug.’’

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Race results, point standings after Xfinity Series opener at Daytona

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Tyler Reddick began his tenure with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series by coming out on top in the closest finish in national NASCAR series history.

Reddick beat Elliott Sadler by 0.000 to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. It is his second career win.

The top five was completed by Ryan Reed, Kaz Grala and Garrett Smithley.

Click here for the race results.

With his win, the 22-year-old driver leaves Daytona with a nine-point lead over Sadler.

Completing the top five in the standings are Spencer Gallagher (-11), Ryan Truex (-15) and Reed (-16).

Click here for the point standings.

Tyler Reddick wins Xfinity Series opener at Daytona in overtime finish

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Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona after a track record 12 cautions, a record five restarts in overtime and one red flag period.

Driving the No. 9 Chevrolet, Reddick beat his JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler in the closest finish in national NASCAR series history, earning his second Xfinity win.

The margin of victory was 0.000.

“That was insane. I just saw a picture of it like 10 minutes ago. It’s not much,” Reddick said in the winner’s press conference. “I guess it was just enough, just soon enough.”

The previous closest finish was .001 in the 1995 Truck Series race at Colorado National Speedway, won by Butch Miller over Mike Skinner.

The top five was completed by Ryan Reed, rookie Kaz Grala and Garrett Smithley.

“Feels amazing,” Reddick told Fox Sports 1. “This was a hell of a way to start off the year with JR Motorsports. … This is a hell of way to get my second win, my first win with JR Motorsports.”

Reddick is now qualified for the Xfinity playoffs.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” Reddick said. “It’s just going to take a little bit of time to het honed in. I guess we’re getting along good right off the bat. We were having some problems all day long. We were having some issues with the motor. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it held on all race long. It was getting worse at the end.”

Reddick, 22, led 11 laps in the race. None of them were in regulation.

Overtime was setup by a spin by Sadler with three laps to go in the scheduled distance on the backstretch. Sadler had previously been black flagged along with Chase Elliott for locking their bumpers together for too long with 26 to go.

Sadler was able to mount a comeback thanks to a crash with 22 to go.

It resulted in his third runner-up finish in the last three restrictor-plate races.

“I was trying to figure out how close to get to (Reddick),” Sadler told Fox Sports 1. “My spotter was telling me the 16 (Reed) was coming too, so I didn’t want to leave him the outside. Man, I really want to win this race. Most eventful race I’ve ever been a part of. Spun there twice. Got black flagged for absolutely no reason in my opinion but that’s the way it goes. … I’m proud that a JR Motorsports car went to victory lane, but I wish it was us today.”

Originally scheduled for 120 laps, the race ended after 143 laps. That’s a series record at Daytona.

The first overtime attempt was marred by a massive wreck on the backstretch that involved 18 cars.

The race marked the 100th for Xfinity as the series sponsor.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Garrett Smithley bounced back from a late-race accident to earn his first top five in his 67th start. His previous best result was eighth in this race last year … Ryan Reed earned his sixth top five. Four have come at Daytona … Spencer Gallagher finished a career-best sixth in his 41st start. Gallagher had been involved in a one-car accident on the second overtime restart … Jeff Green finished 11th for his best finish since placing 10th at Talladega last year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: In his first start on an oval in Xfinity, Austin Cindric started a eight-car wreck in the tri-oval as the field began Lap 11. The wreck eliminated Cindric and Christopher Bell … With 14 to go in the original distance, the caution waived for separate spins by Garrett Smithley and Michael Annett in the tri-oval. Smithley was turned by Ryan Truex and Annett was turned by Brandon Jones … Drivers included in the massive crash on first overtime restart: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliot, Joey Gase, Aric Almirola, Justin Allgaier, Austin Dillon, Matt Tifft, Jeremy Clements, Joe Nemechek, Brandon Brown, Cole Custer, Daniel Suarez, Brandon Jones, David Starr, Jeff Green, Dylan Lupton and Caesar Bacarella.

NOTABLE: Reddick’s win is his second at Daytona. He won the 2015 Truck Series opener at the track. The average age of the field was 28 years, 10 months and 11 days, the youngest ever at Daytona … The 357.5 miles in the race is the second longest race in series history in terms of miles.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “When I have enough fuel, yes.” – David Elenz, crew chief for Tyler Reddick when asked if he likes unlimited restarts in overtime.

QUOTE OF THE DAY 2: “Either way, fine with me.” – JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. after being told the margin of victory was the closest in history.

WHAT’S NEXT: Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox Sports 1.

Barney Visser back at track, still recovering from heart ailment

Dustin Long
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Barney Visser won’t be back to full health for at least another three months, but the owner of Furniture Row Racing will attend tomorrow’s Daytona 500 three months after a heart attack scare.

The episode kept Visser from seeing Martin Truex Jr. win the team’s first Cup championship in person.

It occurred on Nov. 4 and he underwent bypass surgery two days later.

“There’s nothing like getting new pipes,” Visser said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “As good as I feel now, this is a home run.”

Visser, who has fielded cars in NASCAR since 2005, was back at a track for the first time on Friday.

“I missed the people and the competitive spirit,” Visser said. “I heard the engines fire up the other day, and I realized how much I missed that.”

Visser’s health scare was preceded by six months of angina, a symptom of coronary artery disease.

“It was just a burning lung sensation that would come and go,” Visser said. “So I should have paid more attention to that.  But my arm was numb all night the night before I went in (to the hospital), and usually you get up in the morning and you shake that stuff off, but it just wouldn’t shake off.  So I went into the hospital, and they started running tests and did an angiogram that afternoon, and they couldn’t stent it after ‑‑ they’ll try to stent it if they can, and one of them was 99 percent blocked, and they just couldn’t do it. I had to wait for a bypass on Monday.

“If there was a heart attack, and the doctors in the hospital told me there was, my cardiologist ‑‑ these guys take a lot of pride in this stuff and whether or not the patients have heart ‑‑ he doesn’t think I did because of the numbers, but I think what happened is on the gurney on the way to the angiogram, it just felt like somebody was ripping my chest open, and I started complaining about it, and they handed me a nitroglycerin, and I passed out at that point and don’t remember much after that.  They did the angiogram, and I remember a bossy little woman who was the doctor.  She was an angioplasty specialist, and she was going to do the stent.  Everyone was terrified of her.  That’s all I remember about that.”

Visser said his father underwent bypass surgery 40 years ago. But the team owner said he never thought he wouldn’t make it through the procedure.

Visser believes he’ll have more energy at the race track following his ordeal.

“I feel like I’ll have a little more gas after the race now,” Visser said.  “I remember Claire (B Lang of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) talking to me a few times after wins, and I don’t ‑‑ I just was almost dead.  I didn’t realize how tired I was.  I think it’ll be better now.  I’m looking forward to that.”

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