Dale Earnhardt vs. Daytona: A long and winding road North Wilkesboro Speedway renovations ahead of schedule Kyle Busch to run five Xfinity races for Kaulig Racing Friday 5: 23XI Racing takes different approach to building pit crews Kevin Harvick leaves mark as behind-the-scenes mentor for ‘my kids’ in NASCAR
It was late on the evening of February 15, 1998, and Danny “Chocolate” Myers was driving north on Interstate 95, a few hours after the checkered flag of the Daytona 500.
Myers was on his way to North Carolina, but it was a long day that began in the wee hours. By the time he got to Jacksonville, it was clear to him that he needed to get a room for the night and finish the trip the next day.
“I was staying at the Holiday Inn,” Myers said, “I walked in and said, ‘Ma’am, do you have rooms?’ She said yes. She was the first person I saw that day who wasn’t at the racetrack, and I said, “We just won the Daytona 500.” She was the first person I could say that to.”
This was no ordinary message.
It was the car that Myers had been waiting for years, and one Dale Earnhardt, who drove the No. 3 Chevy that Myers filled up almost weekly, was finally able to tell after two decades of suffering and disappointment in the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s premier race. .
Earlier in the day, Earnhardt was the first to take 500 checkered flags, ending a 20-year odyssey. He was the greatest talent of his generation, amassed a fan base of historic proportions and won just about every other important race at Daytona International Speedway, but he failed to complete the Daytona 500.
He did it that February day, and the celebrations that followed were legendary. Victory Lane was flooded with cheers, hugs and champagne. Fans lingered for hours after the checkered flag to soak up the moments. This may have been the peak of Earnhardt’s long and prosperous career.
Earnhardt suffered embarrassing losses in the 500. He led the final lap in 1990 only to have his Chevrolet’s tire blow out on turn three, allowing the upstart Derrick Cope slip past and win. Three years later, he was leading under the white flag, but he was overtaken by the “other” Dale – Jarrett – in victory.
Over the years, Earnhardt has been a solid Daytona winner in everything but the 500 – qualifiers, Xfinity races, International Race of Champions, Clash, Summer Cup race.
That record, Myers told NBC Sports, made failing the 500th run less of a lingering issue.
“We did everything that could be done in Dayton except winning the Daytona 500,” he said. “I think it would be very, very disappointing if we didn’t have all the success we had. Our group was pretty damn tough when it came to losing. We acted like we didn’t care if we got them next year. We didn’t lower our heads. We just mind our own business, loaded up and moved on and we hoped next year would be better and finally it was.”
It wasn’t until Earnhardt solved the 500 dilemma that the team realized just how meaningful winning that race was, according to Myers.
“We were in the racing business,” he said. “We have won many races. We have lost many races. Not winning 500 wasn’t such a big deal until we won it. Then you realize how important it is.”
Cup teams typically spend most of the off-season fine-tuning their Daytona 500 cars. No detail is too small, no part is too small.
Friends say Earnhardt was obsessed with the idea of a black No. 3, which he had hopes for in the biggest race of the season. In January, he flew by helicopter from his shop in Mooresville, North Carolina to the Richard Childress race in Welkom, North Carolina – 50 miles by car – to check on the progress of his Daytona car.
“Daytona was another spot on the schedule, but it was very important to get off to a good start,” Don Hock, who was president of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., told NBC Sports. in the 1990s. “Dale was looking to win championships. In early January, we started flying to Childress’ store to check out the Daytona. He said, “I want to go see my car.” Before SpeedWeeks, he was very interested in his car.”
Typically, Hawke said, Earnhardt was more focused on the finer points of preparing the car at Daytona than at other circuits.
“He was very visible in the Dayton garage,” Hawke said. “He was always looking at the corners of his car. He was looking for what we might have missed. He stood on the roof of a dump truck and watched other people practice. He used to live upstairs in this trailer.
According to Hawke, Earnhardt became “a different person” after winning in 1998. “He experienced the most relief I have seen in my entire life,” he said. “And I have seen him in many incredible situations. It was the biggest burden on his shoulders.”
Three years later, in a grim twist of fate, Earnhardt would die on the last lap of the 500 race that had brought him so much grief and—in one golden day—so much joy.
In 100 days, weather permitting, NASCAR Cup Series drivers will once again compete at the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, which returns to major league racing this year for the first time since 1996.
According to Steve Swift, senior vice president of operations and development at Speedway Motorsports, the work crews are ahead of schedule and expect repairs and additions to be completed by early May. An all-star race is scheduled for May 21 at North Wilkesboro.
Swift says the next big job on the track will be the installation of SAFER barriers, which are expected to come soon. The infield part of the track, which previously consisted of a mixture of asphalt, concrete and grass, will soon be asphalted.
“We’re waiting for a break in the weather for a few warm days to put asphalt on the infield,” Swift told NBC Sports. “We are 55-60% ready with everything.”
The racing surface will not be paved. After racing on the track last year on late models, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was a major proponent of reviving North Wilkesboro, recommended that the old surface be retained for at least the duration of the All-Star Race. Swift said some patches have been patched up, but the same surface that Jeff Gordon won the circuit’s last Cup race in 1996 will be the landscape for this year’s return to racing.
“NASCAR sent in their asphalt experts and we figured we could do an all-star race on the old surface,” Swift said. “We patched up a few spots, but the surface will remain the same as in 1996. It will be new cars on an old surface, and the fans will once again enjoy the fun of old-style racing on this surface.”
Speedway Motorsports decided from the outset to retain as much of the historical “feel” of the old track as possible. Signage from the 1990s has been retained, and a manually operated scoreboard will once again show the leaders of the race.
Swift was quick to add that the idea of preserving the track’s historic nature does not include toilets. All of them will be equipped with modern equipment.
The infield will look different due to the new surface and the fact that the garage’s decrepit cover has been removed. The building containing the elevator that takes the winning car up Victory Lane remains, while another smaller building has been rebuilt.
“It was known as the old gas building or the gas office,” Swift said. “It doesn’t make sense today, but we’ve heard so many old stories about him. It was conceived as a small Union 76 office but became a small meeting place for what we might call tax-free deals. Many business deals were made there, whether it was moonshine or negotiations between riders and team owners.
“Enoch Staley (one of the original owners of the track) was going to tear it down years ago, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. said, “Absolutely not. We’re going to restore this thing. Dale sent his carpenters and they rebuilt it. It was in bad condition again, but we rebuilt it, and we have a cool little building there.”
In addition to installing SAFER fencing and laying paving slabs in the garden, plans for the next three months include installation of lighting, interior decoration in suites and other buildings, as well as finishing touches on signs and stands.
“As a fan, when you get there, you will feel like you’re back in 1980s Wilkesboro,” Swift said.