Earnhardt favored in Daytona 500 That prize eludes one of sport's best


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mounted on a wall in Richard Childress' private racing museum is a shredded Goodyear tire. It hangs right above an enormous stuffed bear that Dale Earnhardt bagged in Alaska.

"That tire cost us $800,000, maybe $900,000, so we couldn't just throw it away," Earnhardt explained.

It may also have cost Earnhardt overdue recognition as one of stock car racing's greatest drivers.

The 38-year-old second-generation driver from Kannapolis, N.C., has accomplished more than any driver other than Richard Petty since Bill France brought racing in from the back roads of the Carolinas 40 years ago and packaged it on superspeedways across the country.

The missing link is winning the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt without a Daytona 500 is like Sam Snead without a U.S. Open, Ernie Banks without a World Series, Nolan Ryan without a Cy Young Award.

Today, in the 33rd annual Daytona 500 on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, Earnhardt will be an overwhelming favorite to end that oversight. The scenario is much like last year. He was also favored then, and ran like it, until he ran out of racing luck.

That cut tire in car owner Childress' museum -- ripped and torn from traveling a little more than a mile after it was punctured -- prevented Earnhardt from adding the Daytona 500 to a portfolio that includes four Winston Cup championships, 48 NASCAR victories, recognition as American Driver of the Year in 1987 and more than $12 million in winnings since his rookie year, 1979.

Earnhardt had led 155 of the 200 laps and was cruising toward the checkered flag on the final lap when his black Chevy Lumina ran over debris coming out of the second turn. The tire began deflating as Earnhardt raced down the backstretch and the car became almost unmanageable as he reached the 31-degree bank on the third turn.

While Earnhardt fought for control high up on the bank, Derrike Cope, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd took the low road and destroyed his dreams. Cope, an unlikely candidate for victory, got to the finish stripe first and set off a celebration in his hometown of Spanaway, Wash.

"You can't kick the car and cry and pout and squall and bawl," Earnhardt said at the time. "After all, it's not the Daytona 499. You've got to take it and walk on."

"The one question I'm asked the most is what winning meant to me personally," Earnhardt said. "The first thing I thought was that it moved me out of a deadlock with four other drivers [Lee Petty, Pearson, Yarborough and Waltrip] and made me the only one other than Richard Petty to win more than three."

Petty has won seven NASCAR championships -- and seven Daytona 500s.

"It makes me very proud to be where I am with only the king having won more," Earnhardt said of Petty. "I have maybe 15 more years of racing ahead of me, and who knows, maybe I'll catch Petty. But even if I do, he'll always be the king as far as I'm concerned."

Daytona 500 lineup

1, Davey Allison, Ford Thunderbird, 195.955.

2, Ernie Irvan, Chevrolet Lumina, 195.639.

3, Richard Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix.

4, Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Lumina.

5, Hut Stricklin, Buick Regal.

6, Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix.

7, Rick Mast, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

8, Rusty Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix.

9, Ricky Rudd, Chevrolet Lumina.

10, Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Lumina.

11, Harry Gant, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

12, Sterling Marlin, Ford Thunderbird.

13, Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix.

14, Joe Ruttman, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

15, Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird.

16, Buddy Baker, Pontiac Grand Prix.

17, Dale Jarrett, Ford Thunderbird.

18, Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird.

19, Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird.

20, Bobby Hamilton, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

21, Jim Sauter, Pontiac Grand Prix.

22, Jeff Purvis, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

23, Jimmy Spencer, Chevrolet Lumina.

24, Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Lumina.

25, Greg Sacks, Chevrolet Lumina.

26, Rick Wilson, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

27, Alan Kulwicki, Ford Thunderbird.

28, Dick Trickle, Pontiac Grand Prix.

29, Phil Barkdoll, Oldsmobile Cutlass.

30, Chad Little, Ford Thunderbird.

31, Terry Labonte, Oldsmobile Cutlass, 193.228.

32, Sammy Swindell, Oldsmobile Cutlass, 192.740.

33, Derrike Cope, Chevrolet Lumina, 192.336.

34, Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 192.254.

35, Robby Gordon, Ford Thunderbird, 192.238.

36, Bobby Hillin Jr., Oldsmobile Cutlass, 192.160.

37, Ted Musgrave, Pontiac Grand Prix, 192.127.

38, Mickey Gibbs, Pontiac Grand Prix, 192.053.

39, Jimmy Means, Pontiac Grand Prix, 191.697.

40, Eddie Bierschwale, Oldsmobile Cutlass, 191.608.

41, Brett Bodine, Buick Regal, provisional starter.

42, Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Lumina, prov. starter.

(Positions 3 through 30 determined in 125-mile qualifying races)

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