A long and winding road

It was the evening of February 15, 1998, and Danny “Chocolate” Myers was rolling north on Interstate 95, several hours after the checkered flag at the Daytona 500.

Myers was on his way to North Carolina, but it had been a long day, starting just before dawn. When he reached Jacksonville, it was clear to him that he needed to find a room for the night and finish his journey the next day.

“I stopped at a Holiday Inn,” Myers said, “and I walked in and said, ‘Ma’am, do you have any rooms?’ She said yes She was the first person I saw that day that wasn’t at the track, and I said, “We just won the Daytona 500.” She was the first person I could tell.

It was no ordinary message.

It was one that Myers had been waiting for years to deliver, and one Dale Earnhardt, who drove the No. 1 Chevrolet. .

Earlier in the day, Earnhardt had taken the checkered flag in the 500m first, ending a 20-year odyssey. He was the top talent of his generation, built a fan base of historic proportions and won virtually every other major race at Daytona International Speedway, but he just couldn’t finish the Daytona 500.

That February day he did, and the celebrations that followed were legendary. Victory Lane was awash with high fives, hugs and champagne. Fans lingered for hours after the checkered flag to soak up the moments. Arguably, it was the pinnacle of Earnhardt’s long and prosperous career.

Earnhardt had suffered frustrating losses in the 500. He led on the final lap in 1990 only to blow a tire on his Chevrolet in turn three, allowing Derrike Cope to slide out and win. Three years later, he led the white flag but was overtaken by “the other” Dale-Jarrett-for the win.

Over the years, Earnhardt has been a reliable winner at Daytona in everything but the 500: qualifying races, Xfinity races, International Race of Champions events, the Clash, the Summer Cup race.

That record, Myers told NBC Sports, made busts in the 500 less of a persistent problem.

“We had done everything you could do at Daytona except win the Daytona 500,” he said. “I think it would have been very, very disappointing if we hadn’t had as much success as we have. Our group was damn tough when it came to losing. We acted like we didn’t mind that we were getting them next year. We have not lowered our heads. We just went about our business, loaded up and moved on and hopefully the next year would be better, and it finally was.

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 victory came in celebration of his 50th season of NASCAR. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Earnhardt solved the 500 dilemma that the team realized how significant winning that race was, Myers said.

“We were in the racing business,” he said. “We have won many races. We have lost many races. Not winning the 500 wasn’t a big deal until we won it. Then you realize how important it is.

Cup teams typically spend a large portion of the off-season tuning their Daytona 500 cars. No detail is too small, no part too small.

Friends say Earnhardt was obsessed with Black Rumors No. 3 that would have brought his hopes to the most important race of the season. In January, he would fly by helicopter from his shop in Mooresville, NC to Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, NC—a 50-mile drive—to check the progress of his Daytona car.

“Daytona was another place on the schedule, but it was really important to get off to a good start,” Don Hawk, who was president of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in the 1990s, told NBC Sports. “Dale raced to win championships. In early January we would start helicoptering down to the Childress store to check out the Daytona car. He said, “I want to go see my car.” He had a keen interest in his car which he carried at SpeedWeeks.

Dale Earnhardt

Crew members from other teams lined the pits to congratulate Dale Earnhardt after winning the 1998 Daytona 500. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Typically, Hawk said, Earnhardt was more focused on the intricacies of prepping cars at Daytona than at other tracks.

“It was very visible in the Daytona garage,” Hawk said. “She was always looking at the corners of her car. She was looking at what we might be missing. He stood at the top of the conveyor and watched the other people practising. He lived on top of that trailer.

Earnhardt was “a different person” after the 1998 win, Hawk said. “He was the most relieved to have seen him in my entire life,” he said. “And I’ve seen him in a lot of incredible situations. This was the biggest weight on his shoulders.

Three years later, ironically, Earnhardt would die on the last lap of the 500, the race that had brought him so much pain and – in a golden day – so much joy.

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Dale Earnhardt vs. Daytona: A Long and Crooked Road originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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