Somewhere in Dale Earnhardt’s life, you might suppose, someone from either ‘way up High (or ‘way down Low) must have offered him a deal.
“Dale,” that entity might have said, “would you rather be the best race car driver in the world, or would you rather win the Daytona 500?”
If that were the case, it’s pretty obvious which one Earnhardt chose.
“I’m not supposed to win the damn thing, I don’t reckon,” the seven-time Winston Cup champion said after his 17th straight disappointment at coming oh-so-close without lighting up a victory cigar.
You have to put this thing in perspective. Earnhardt has won nearly every race on the Winston Cup circuit. He has tied Richard Petty’s number of championships.
He has absolutely dominated Daytona International Speedway the last several years on every day except The Big Day.
He won three races - the Busch Clash, his Twin 125 qualifier and the International Race of Champions - leading up to this year’s Daytona 500.
But as in the past, he trudged out of the speedway Sunday night bearing the weight of yet another crushing defeat.
A partial list of Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 lowlights:
1993: Led laps 196-199 (of 200) but was passed by Dale Jarrett on the last one.
1991: Led laps 189-194, but crashed with Davey Allison on 198.
1990: Led laps 196-199, ran over a piece of debris on the last lap and lost.
1986: Led 34 laps and was following Geoff Bodine when he pitted for fuel, then broke engine.
At least this one was out of his control. Sterling Marlin simply had the better car.
After Jeff Gordon’s mishap on pit road took him out of contention, it became obvious that the race would be settled between the two best Monte Carlos in the field, and Marlin and Earnhardt were driving those.
But Marlin’s was a tick better, so, when the opportunity arose for Earnhardt to roll the dice, he took it.
Earnhardt pitted during the last caution period when no one else did, giving up track position for new tires.
He drove from 14th to second like a man possessed and had the jam-packed crowd at the massive speedway either rooting for or against him, but rooting.
Problem was, he and Marlin were both too good. Marlin’s car was just that much faster than Earnhardt’s, and nobody else could catch up to give him any help.
Because of the drafting technique, it takes a buddy for a lesser car to pass a greater one, and no one else could get close enough.
“I was better than Sterling was through the corners, but he was better than I was down the straightaway,” Earnhardt said. “If we had had some help with somebody out there we would have got him, but he was awfully strong.”
Earnhardt got a set of tires that put him farther back in the field than he wanted to be for that lastditch effort, and that hurt him, he said. But the last set he put on was the key to his keeping second.
“It went to pushing on one set of tires,” he said. “We would have been 10th or so if we hadn’t gotten tires on that last caution. It really came back to the front, but I needed a little help to get by Sterling.
“We needed some help, but nobody could help you if they couldn’t stay with you through the corners.
“If I could have ever got to the 4 car (Marlin) to make him loose through the corners, I might could have got him, but he had a strong car today.”
As it was, he couldn’t get closer than a car-length.
Said Marlin: “Coming off turn 4 on the last lap with everybody standing and cheering sends cold chills through you.”
For Earnhardt, it was more a cold, gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach.
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