Dale Earnhardt : biography
1998 saw Earnhardt finally win the Daytona 500 after being shut out in his previous 19 attempts. Earnhardt began the season by winning his Twin 125-mile qualifier race for the ninth straight year. On race day, Earnhardt showed himself to be a contender early. Halfway through the race, however, it seemed that Jeff Gordon had the upper hand. But by lap 138, Earnhardt had taken the lead, and thanks to a push by teammate Mike Skinner, he was able to maintain it. Earnhardt made it to the to the caution checkered flag before Bobby Labonte. Afterwards, there was a large show of respect for Earnhardt, in which every crew member of every team lined pit road to shake his hand as he made his way to victory lane. Earnhardt then drove his No. 3 into the infield grass, starting a trend of post-race celebrations. He spun the car twice, throwing grass and leaving tire tracks in the shape of a No. 3 in the grass. Earnhardt then spoke about the victory, saying "I have had a lot of great fans and people behind me all through the years and I just can’t thank them enough. The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it! We won it! We won it!" Unfortunately, the rest of the season did not go as well, and The Great American Race was his only victory that year. He slipped to 12th in the standings halfway through the season, and Richard Childress decided to make a crew chief change, taking Mike Skinner’s crew chief Kevin Hamlin and putting him with Earnhardt while giving Skinner Larry McReynolds. Earnhardt was able to climb back to 8th in the final standings.
Before the 1999 season, fans began discussing Earnhardt’s age and speculating that with his son, Dale Jr. getting into racing, Earnhardt might be contemplating retirement. Earnhardt swept both races for the year at Talladega, leading most observers to conclude that Earnhardt’s talent had become limited to the restrictor plate tracks, which require a unique skill set and an exceptionally powerful car to win. But halfway through the year, Earnhardt began to show some of the old spark. In the August race at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt led laps late in the race and nearly pulled off his first win on a non-restrictor plate track since 1996.
One week later, he provided NASCAR with one of its most controversial moments. At the August Bristol race, Earnhardt found himself in contention to win his first short track race since Martinsville in 1995. When a caution came out with 15 laps to go, leader Terry Labonte got hit from behind by the lapped car of Darrell Waltrip. His spin put Earnhardt in the lead with 5 cars between him and Labonte with 5 laps to go. Labonte had four fresh tires and Earnhardt was driving on old tires, which made Earnhardt’s car considerably slower. Labonte caught Earnhardt and passed him coming to the white flag, but Earnhardt drove hard into turn two, bumping Labonte and spinning him around. Eanhardt went on to collect the win while spectators booed and made obscene gestures. "I didn’t mean to turn him around, I just wanted to rattle his cage", Earnhardt said of the incident. Earnhardt finished 7th in the standings that year, and looked like a contender again.
In the 2000 season, Earnhardt had a resurgence, which some attributed to neck surgery he underwent to correct a lingering injury from his 1996 Talladega crash. He scored what many considered the two most exciting wins of the year – winning by .006 seconds over Bobby Labonte at Atlanta, then gaining seventeen positions in the final four laps to win at Talladega, claiming his only No Bull million dollar bonus. Earnhardt also enjoyed strong second-place runs at Richmond and Martinsville, tracks where he’d struggled through the late ’90s. On the strength of these performances, Earnhardt was able to get to 2nd in the standings. However, poor performances at the road course of Watkins Glen, where he wrecked coming out of the chicane, a wreck with Kenny Irwin Jr. while leading the spring race at Bristol, and mid-pack runs at intermediate tracks like Charlotte and Dover in a season dominated by the Ford Taurus in those tracks from Roush, Yates, and Penske, coupled with the extreme consistency of Bobby Labonte, denied Earnhardt the coveted eighth championship title.