ESPN began airing what they thought were some of the best Daytona 500's in history last Monday, counting down to the 50th running of the Great American Race next month. Last Monday's showed the 1976 classic, this week will be the 1979 race, which was the first NASCAR race broadcast flag to flag. Others will be from 1990, 1999, and 2007.
People have asked me if I had a favorite 500. I always reply with a grin on my face with, "98."
The 1998 Daytona 500 will always be my favorite edition of the Great American Race. Why you might ask? Because that was the day that Dale Earnhardt finally won the race in his 20th attempt. Obviously, this would be my favorite 500, and if you didn't see that coming you obviously have not been paying attention.
The race itself was... not that great. I think there were maybe about 15 lead changes or so and only four cautions. The race was going smoothly through the first 150 laps and then came the final round of pitstops. Earnhardt got out in front with a two-tire stop while the other leaders took four. He was able to hold off Jeremy Mayfield and then use, as the words of Mike Joy are still fresh in my ear, "the lap car of Rick Mast as a pick" coming back to the yellow flag with 2 laps to go.
Then the next line from the veteran broadcaster secured the most popular victory in the history of the sport.
"Twenty years of trying. Twenty years of frustration. Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag, to win the Daytona 500."
After watching the tape that night and seeing the final lap hundreds of times on various NASCAR programming, I knew that this would forever go down as the day that the sport's greatest driver won the greatest of all races.
And now as we approach the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's only Daytona 500 win, I'm reminded of how great a day that was, not only for me and other Earnhardt fans, but for what that win did for the sport as a whole. Never before have I ever seen every crew member from every team line up on pit road to great a winning driver. I have not seen it since, and I doubt it'll ever happen again.
It was the 40th running of the Daytona 500 and it was also the kickoff for the 50th anniversary season of NASCAR. It brought more attention from national media outlets than any race ever had before. This was the start of the new modern era for NASCAR and it started with Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500.
You ask if I'm a bit biased. You're right.
ESPN's marathon of the greatest Daytona 500's in history will air on Mondays at 2:00 p.m. on ESPN Classic and will run through Speedweeks in February. And when the air the 1998 race in a few weeks, I'll even skip class to watch it.