Near-miss only heightens Earnhardt's determination Countdown to Daytona


Dale Earnhardt was so close to winning the Daytona 500 last February, his emotions were revving as fast as his engine.

The final lap. Moving down the backstretch. The class of the field. Car No. 3, the Goodwrench Lumina, had dominated all afternoon. Victory was just two turns away. The only race that had escaped him, the Daytona 500, was about to be his.

And then it happened. A piece of debris. A cut tire, and it was over. Unknown Derrike Cope would collect the checkered flag, the victory and the emotional ride that went with it.

Earnhardt felt his own emotions tumble to the depths. The joy gone. And all that remained was an emptiness. All he could do was look with disbelief at the big old black tire that had done him wrong.

"I've never experienced anything like that," he says. "I've never been so high and then so low almost at the same time. It's impossible to say how I felt at that moment."

The biggest single prize in Winston Cup stock car racing had eluded his grasp again.

Now, coming into Sunday's 33rd annual Daytona 500 (Ch. 11, noon), it is clear that nothing has deadened the pain of it. And that he has planned it that way.

Dale Earnhardt, no matter what he says, wants to remember.

"It's history," says Earnhardt, who won his half of the 125-mile qualifying races yesterday to lock up a second-row starting spot Sunday. "I can't dwell on that one thing. Let's leave it alone."

But Earnhardt, who went on to win a fourth Winston Cup championship last season, hasn't left it alone. And neither has his crew.

"That tire has burned at us for a year now," says Earnhardt's crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine. "We should have won last year's 500."

The tire that betrayed Earnhardt's dream has hung in the garage of car owner Richard Childress all year. Every time Earnhardt and his team came to work, they passed it. Looked at it. And remembered.

"It haunted our entire season," Earnhardt says. "That tire cost us more than $900,000, how could we throw it away?"

He missed the No. 1 payoff at Daytona and had to settle for a $100,000 Winston bonus at the end of the season, instead of the Winston Million that goes to the driver who wins three of stock car racing's Big Four.

Earnhardt won at Talladega, Ala., and at Darlington, S.C., but he lost the 600 at Charlotte and Daytona.

And so he remembers.

Earnhardt came to Daytona International Speedway for the first time in 1976. He was entered in the Sportsman Class then, driving "a little old Nova." These days things are a lot different, but the memory of the first time he laid eyes on the speedway makes him grin.

"We had the car on a trailer," he recalled. "And we drove by out front, down Route 92, and it seemed like we kept driving by and driving by. 'How big is this thing?' That was my first thought. We went in for inspection and it was unbelievable. We stayed lost for days. It was awesome."

When he made his first Winston Cup appearance at the track, it was two years later and he finished seventh. It seemed good enough then, but little did he know that it was to be the beginning of 11 more years of disappointment.

This will be Earnhardt's 12th attempt at winning Daytona.

"We worked harder than ever to come back here and win," Earnhardt says. "I feel we're in better shape than we were last year or any year. We want to win this thing badly. Last year has nothing to do with this year. This is a new Daytona 500. It might go through my mind, if we're leading going down the backstretch on the last lap -- but I doubt it will happen again."

As former Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett pointed out recently, who can doubt Earnhardt's resolve or ability.

"It's almost scary how good Dale is," said Jarrett. "He can do things others can't. Everyone in these garages has seen it and they all know it."

And so does Earnhardt.

"I know I'm going to win this thing," he says. "I just don't know when."

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