Dale Earnhardt isn’t the kind of guy who usually stirs feelings of empathy. He’s arrogant, confident and aggressive, fully aware of his position as a legend in the world of stock car racing.
At every track, it seems like half the crowd is pulling for him - and half would like nothing better than to see him lose. “Anybody but Earnhardt,” is a familiar refrain around the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.
But as Earnhardt came around the final turn at Daytona International Speedway Sunday, an also-ran for the 17th year in a row, it was difficult not to feel a sense of pity for the man they call “The Intimidator.”
“He’s won a lot of races but he’s not won this one,” said Sterling Marlin, who beat Earnhardt to the finish line by less than a second Sunday for his second straight Daytona 500 victory. “He’s won seven (Winston Cup) championships, and I know he wants to win the Daytona 500.”
Earnhardt seems to have accepted his fate. After he crawled out of his familiar No. 3 black Chevrolet, he tried to make light of the whole situation by cracking a few selfdeprecating jokes.
“Hey there,” he said, extending his hand to a stranger. “I’m Dale Earnhardt, and I’ve never won the Daytona 500.”
Behind the smiles, though, there was pain in Earnhardt’s eyes.
He would go down as one of the greatest drivers in stock car history if he never competed in another race, having won 63 already and tying Richard Petty’s record of seven season championships. But something would be missing, like the golfer who never wins the Masters or the tennis player who never captures a Wimbledon title.
On Sunday, Earnhardt fully expected to scratch his 17-year itch. He already had won three races during Daytona Speed Weeks (the Busch Clash, a 125-mile qualifying event and the International Race of Champions) and vowed to reporters that he would join them again after the biggest event of all.
“I’ll see y’all Sunday, here,” he told them at a press box Q-and-A following his win in the qualifying race.
Instead, Earnhardt quickly gathered up his wife and daughter and began the long drive to this weekend’s race in Rockingham, N.C., while Marlin celebrated in Victory Lane. Earnhardt couldn’t seem to get away fast enough, pulling out of the track hardly 10 minutes after he watched Marlin take the checkered flag a few tantalizing feet in front of him.
“Second place don’t get it,” The Intimidator snapped. “All of them are heartbreaking losses if you don’t win.”
Earnhardt shouldn’t feel so bad, though. Daytona has a way of making stars out of journeymen (the only two wins of Marlin’s career are the 1994 and ‘95 Daytona 500s) and showing no mercy on the giants of the sport.
But Earnhardt is a class above everyone else. He’s the one racer who’s competitive everywhere, whether it be short tracks, road courses or superspeedways. He’s been in the top five in the point standings every year but one since 1986, winning six of his seven championships during that span.
Even at Daytona, Earnhardt always has one of the strongest cars. He’s won a record eight qualifying races, two of the July 400-mile events, 26 victories in all at the mecca of stock car racing. But in the biggest race of them all, something always seems to happen.
In 1990, he cut a tire on the final lap and allowed nondescript Derrike Cope to cruise to victory. The following year, Earnhardt was running near the front when he got tangled up with Davey Allison just two laps from the finish. Two years ago, Earnhardt was passed by Dale Jarrett as they began the final lap.
Earnhardt led 23 laps on Sunday, but it was obvious he wasn’t as fast as Marlin. So, with just 13 laps to go, he ducked in the pits to pick up four new tires under a yellow flag.
Earnhardt was 14th when the green came out two laps later, but no one is better at navigating through traffic. The cars seemed to part in front of him, and with 2 laps still to go, he had made it back to Marlin’s bumper.
Once again, the race was right within his grasp. Once again, though, victory was snatched away.
“I was better than Sterling through the corners, but he was better than I was down the straightaway,” Earnhardt said after his third secondplace finish in the 500. “This is the Daytona 500. I’m not supposed to win the damn thing, I don’t reckon.”
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