November 13, 2017
Sutton and Seth Sharp
When you think of Daytona one name almost instantly comes to mind, Earnhardt. While it is nearly impossible for anybody to match the level of success Dale Earnhardt experienced at the famed Superspeedway, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the most feared restrictor plate racers over the course of his career, but his first race at Daytona didn’t go quite as planned.
On Saturday, February 14, 1998 , all eyes were on the Busch Grand National Series as they kicked off their season in the Napa Auto Parts 300. Familiar faces filled the front row as Mike McLaughlin and Joe Nemechek took the top two spots in qualifying. Starting behind them in third place was the highly anticipated rookie in the A.C Delco No. 3 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. This was the 10th career start for the 23 year old, but first at the track that his father had dominated so many times before.
A first lap crash took out over a half dozen cars and brought the field quickly back under caution. When the track was clear and action back underway, Earnhardt Jr. settled nicely into third place.
On lap-24 Mike Dillon blew a right front tire, bringing out the second caution of the day and the leaders down pit road for service. As the blue No. 3 headed for his box, Earnhardt Jr. locked up his brakes and sent his jackman flying across the hood of his Chevrolet.
Dale later said, “We had some kind of a miscue in the pits. It was just a rookie mistake on my part, coming in there a little too hot. I was pretty excited about running up front with those guys.”.
Determined to get the car pitted and back on the track, the jackman quickly regained his footing and helped pit the No. 3 car. Unfortunately for the rookie and his team, it didn’t get easier from there. Before the jack was dropped on the left side, Earnhardt Jr left the clutch out causing damage to both the drive shaft and transmission. A lengthy repair cost the rookie driver a chance at victory, but this wasn’t the last we’d hear from him that day.
Earnhardt Jr. would eventually return to the track over 20 laps down, but with a car fast enough to keep up with the lead pack. After his day eventually ended, he talked about his goals. “We were just trying to learn how to draft and stay up front.”
After a late race caution, the field lined up double file with the lapped cars on the inside, and the leaders to the right. The No. 87 of Nemechek was still out front, and to the inside was the 36th place car of Earnhardt Jr. During the caution a member of Nemechek’s team ran down to the 3 car’s pit box to see if Earnhardt Jr would be able to help the 87 on the restart. Crew Chief Brian Pattie told CBS’s Dick Berggren, “Dale Jr. and Nemechek are very good friends”.
When the green flag dropped once again, Earnhardt was unable to get in line behind Nemechek and found himself side by side with the fifth place car of veteran Dick Trickle. Coming full speed down the backstretch, Buckshot Jones got into the right rear of Trickle, who turned into Earnhardt Jr. As Trickle and Earnhardt Jr both spun towards the grass, the No. 3 car lifted off the ground and did a flip through the air before landing on the hood of Trickle’s No. 64 and bouncing to a stop against the infield wall. Thankfully, Earnhardt Jr was able to walk away from the scary incident.
After being released from the infield care center, Earnhardt Jr. talked about the incident. “Ah, just a little bit woozy. Got banged around in there just a little bit. Just flipped over. I can’t really tell what was going on from inside the race-car. All you see is grass, sky, grass, sky.”
The rest of the season turned out much better as the A.C. Delco Chevrolet found victory lane seven times en-route to the first of two consecutive championships.
Success at Daytona was not far behind either, as Earnhardt Jr. would win four of his next five Busch Series events at the track, as well as the emotional Pepsi 400 in 2001. Dale continued in his Father’s footsteps and racked up more victories at Daytona, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500’s.
From seeing grass and sky, to the sky being the limit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will forever be synonymous with Daytona.