On February 15, 1998, after 20 years of trying, racing great Dale Earnhardt Sr. finally wins his first Daytona 500, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) season opener and an event dubbed the “Super Bowl of stock car racing.” Driving his black No. 3 Chevrolet, Earnhardt recorded an average speed of 172.712 mph and took home a then-record more than $1 million in prize money. Following his victory, crews from competing teams lined the pit road at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, to congratulate Earnhardt, who drove his car onto the grass and did several celebratory doughnuts, or circles.
Earnhardt, whose tough, aggressive driving style earned him the nickname “The Intimidator,” was born on April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. The son of a racecar driver, the younger Earnhardt dropped out of high school to follow in his father’s footsteps. He went on to become one of NASCAR’s most successful and respected drivers, with 76 career victories, including seven Winston Cup (now known as the Sprint Cup) Series championships, a record he shares with Richard Petty. Despite his success as a driver, victory at the Daytona 500–a 200-lap, 500-mile event first held in 1959–eluded Earnhardt for years. At the 1997 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s car flipped upside down on the backstretch; however, he managed to escape serious injury.
His win in February 1998 represented Earnhardt’s sole Daytona victory. Tragically, on February 18, 2001, Earnhardt died at the age of 49 during a crash at that year’s 43rd Daytona 500. After being cut from his car, he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead of head injuries. As it happened, the race which cost Earnhardt his life was won by Michael Waltrip, who was driving for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) racing team. Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., also a DEI driver at the time, took second place. Three years later, on February 15, 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500, with an average speed of 156.341 mph.