The now-famous phrase “20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration,” echoed from broadcaster Mike Joy as Dale Earnhardt took the checkered flag in the 1998 Daytona 500. Those words proved to be true for not only Dale, but Richard himself. If NASCAR awarded a trophy for the Daytona 499, Richard and Dale would have won the Great American race multiple times. .
We know what that day meant for Dale. As we conclude our 45th Anniversary celebration, we sat down with those who involved with and were instrumental in that historic day for RCR.
DANNY LAWRENCE – CHIEF ENGINE BUILDER:
“In 1998, I became the chief engine builder for RCR. We had worked really hard and if you look in my office now there is a picture of Dale, Richard and myself looking over the engine. We actually had an engine on the truck, the first engine we had that had roller cam bearings. We had not raced it and it was about four horsepower better than anything else we had. Back then we would come with a qualifying engine, a practice engine and a race engine. When we put that race engine in, Earnhardt said he just didn’t have the speed that he needed, so we all got together and decided that we would switch. Earnhardt told us all that if we have an issue that he will make it up, if he blew up in that Daytona 500 he told us that he would find a way to make it up. So we took that other engine and raced it in the 1998 Daytona 500 with roller cam bearings that we had not run before, we put it in the morning of the race and had no practice whatsoever.”
RICHARD CHILDRESS – OWNER:
“That was big, I knew how much it meant to Dale and it just made RCR proud to be with him. We had won the Daytona 499 a few times, but to win the 500 was really big because it was something he really wanted on his resume.”
But what did it mean to you?
“As an owner, to be part of winning our first Daytona 500 was really special because we had been so close so many times. We’ve had dominant cars there in several races prior to that and lost the race.”
JR RHODES – MEDIA RELATIONS REPRESENTATIVE:
“Mr. France, “Captain Jack” is what he was affectionately called on the radio. Either the night or day before, Dale had a conversation with Mr. France about his grass in the tri-oval. He wanted it to look so pretty for TV on Sundays, but they were wrecking on Saturdays and Dale said something to him to the effect ‘If I win, I’m going to tear your grass up.’ In the radio transmission you hear, ‘Captain Jack I’m getting ready to tear your grass up,’ and that’s why he turned into the grass. He told Mr. France that when he won, he was going to tear his grass up. He had no reason to go in there, but he did it to get at Captain Jack.”
“That hug and the first time Dale see’s Richard, it doesn’t get better than that bud.”
DANNY ‘CHOCLATE’ MEYERS – GAS MAN:
“Anytime that we went to Daytona we knew there was a possibility to win. I had gotten to the point and the conversation had been ‘Will Dale Earnhardt ever win the Daytona 500?’ I had told people I got to a place where I said Daytona is just another race, it pays the same amount points and it’s no different than anywhere else. When the caution came out, we knew then we had won….but that was the longest lap ever for me to stand there and wait. The fortunate thing for me, I had my wife and family there in victory lane and in the photos. Everybody was there at the right time.
“I drove a big duly and trailer down, so that night we had to drive back to get back to work the next day. I remember driving home that night; I made it to Jacksonville through the traffic and had to get a hotel room. We were all tired and needed to get a hotel for the night. I walked in a Holiday Inn and see the front desk lady and she was the first person I got to see and say “We just won the Daytona 500!”
COY HEDRICK – CREW MEMBER:
“That day was like the season of 2001, we just knew we were going to win that day. It’s just something weird when you’re a racer, you feel it in your gut. It’s hard to describe, it’s just so weird. Once we took the caution, everybody started celebrating. If he had four flat tires, he’d make sure he’d drive it back to the checkered flag. We had to tear the car down, and then put it back together for the museum so it was nine o’clock before we even left to come home. While we were tearing down Dale was walking around with his firesuit on smoking a big ole’ cigar, hugging and thanking us in the garage. He thanked everyone on that crew when he won every time.”
CAROLE HOUCHINS – TIMER AND SCORER:
“I remember sitting in the scoring stand right on the start/finish line and I learned a long time ago not to get excited with three laps to go because of everything. I’m sitting there and scoring the race, he comes around with two laps to go and I think ‘ok, here we go,’ then the caution flag comes out, the first thing I thought ‘ohhh no, not again,’ I’m sitting next to Mark Martin’s scorer and she looks at me and says ‘honey it’s over, you won.’ It happened so quick, I just kind of sat there. She said to me ‘You go on to victory circle; I’ll score the last lap.’ I said, ‘There ain’t no way you’re scoring the last lap, I’ve waited a long time to score this lap.’ I scored the lap; the scoring stand went crazy everyone went wild. I ran out of the stand as hard as I could go to get to victory circle.
“It was absolute mayhem. Everyone was hugging each other and crying. I’ve never seen Dale so happy in my life. He gave me a champagne bottle and a victory lane hat. Mostly it’s all up here in my head.
“I didn’t bring a change of clothes that day and we had to fly home. I live 45 minutes from the airport, so we landed at some ridiculous hour in the morning. We had poured champagne all over each other celebrating. Here I am driving home in this uniform reeking like an absolute distillery at two o’clock in the morning and I’m thinking if I get stopped they’re never going to believe my story. It was just so wonderful, but it happened so fast that I didn’t know what to do…but I quickly figured it out.”