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

Andy Lyons /Allsport
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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!’’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58xcBHUvST0

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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NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.