No longer will Dale Earnhardt have to hear that dreaded question: "Will you ever win the Daytona 500?"
In the twilight of a magnificent career, Earnhardt completed his resume Sunday by winning the only coveted stock car prize to previously elude him. On the day NASCAR began celebrating its 50th anniversary with the 40th running of The Great American Race, Earnhardt won on his 20th try.This time, the man selected in a NASCAR survey as its greatest driver ever wasn't smoked off on the final lap. He didn't flip his car, and there were no blown tires.
"Every which way you can, I've lost it," Earnhardt said. "Now I've won it."
Then he reached into his uniform, pulled out a stuffed monkey and threw it on the floor.
"I don't ever have to answer that question again," Earnhardt said.
Although his record 31 victories in all forms of racing at Daytona International Speedway probably will stand forever, Earnhardt had lost the big race in so many ways. At 46, and with Jeff Gordon and other younger drivers now far more productive, many wondered if he would ever find his way to Victory Lane in the sport's biggest event.
Fellow driver Kyle Petty was not among them.
"It was never an if," Petty said. "It was a when."
As desirable as the Daytona 500 might have been, Earnhardt had reached the point where any victory would be a godsend. He was mired in a career-worst 59-race winless streak that spanned 23 months, so his 71st Winston Cup victory was reason to celebrate, regardless of the venue.
Now, Earnhardt is free to pursue something he wants even more - an unprecedented eighth series title.
"Hell, no," Earnhardt said when asked if his career goals had been met. "Another championship is going to make it com-plete."
That won't be easy, but it might seem so compared to his run of bad luck that ended in this Daytona 500. Despite dominating the race on so many occasions, Earnhardt had known nothing but heartbreak on the third Sunday of each February.
In 1990, he controlled the race for 499 miles, but ran over a broken part and blew a tire two turns from the end.
In 1993, he led 105 laps, only to be passed by Dale Jarrett on the final one.
In 1997, he overcame horrendous pit stops to stay among the leaders until a brush with eventual race winner Gordon put him on his roof.
To say Earnhardt had dominated so often is not sufficient. The hard numbers reveal just how good he has been. From 1987 to 1996, he completed 1,999 of a possible 2,000 laps - 4,9971/2 of 5,000 miles.
"It was our time," he said. "All week long everybody's been saying, `This is your week, this is your week.' It was."
This time, he led 107 laps in his Chevrolet. But for the first time, that included the only one he'd never led - the last one.
That was assured when the Pontiac of pole-sitter Bobby Labonte and the Ford of Jeremy Mayfield broke their own draft in an attempt to catch Earnhardt on the 199th lap. Labonte won, but he couldn't get by the lapped car of Rick Mast and catch Earnhardt.
The Man in Black didn't have to race one more lap to earn the victory because a caution flag brought out by a tangle on the back stretch between John Andretti and Lake Speed had slowed the field for the final trip around the 2 1/2-mile oval.
"I don't know what would have happened with another lap," Labonte said. "I was super fast."
But he fell short of collecting $2 million, half of which would have come from the No Bull 5 bonus offered to him and four other drivers by series sponsor Winston. He settled for $548,555 and another shot at the bonus in May at Charlotte.
Earnhardt got $1.059 million from a purse of $7 million - both the biggest payout numbers ever in stock car racing. Earnhardt, Labonte, Mayfield, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace will be eligible for the bonus at the Coca-Cola 600.
Schrader, who drove despite a broken sternum, was fourth in a Chevy; Wallace fifth in a Ford.
"It's unbelievable what he did today," said Andy Petree, Schrader's car owner. "I know how much he was hurting."
Defending Daytona 500 and Winston Cup champion Gordon was strong throughout the race until an engine problem near the end relegated him to 16th. He was happy for Earnhardt, who had finished second four times in the race.
"As many times as he's been so, so close, he deserves it," Gordon said.
Earnhardt averaged 172.712 mph in a race slowed just three times by caution. It was the third-fastest Daytona 500.
The ride to Victory Lane was perhaps the slowest ever. Earnhardt exchanged high-fives with virtually every Winston Cup team as a roar of approval descended from a crowd of 185,000.
But numbers meant nothing to Earnhardt, who looked out the press box window as fans scooped up dirt his tires had dug up when he spun to put his car number - 3 - in the sod near the finish line. They treated it like hallowed ground.
To Earnhardt, the whole place was.
"There's a lot of emotions played out down here at Daytona with the letdowns we've had," he said. "It's eluded us for so many years."