Monday, Feb. 16, 1998 | 10:02 a.m.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Intimidator finally was intimidated.
After 19 years of trying and failing to win the coveted Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt finally took the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season opener.
And then he cried .... well, sort of.
"Well, my eyes watered up," the seven-time Winston Cup champion said after holding off a hard-charging Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag Sunday under a last-lap caution flag. "I don't think I really cried as much as my eyes watered up that last lap coming to get the checkered. This is pretty awesome because we worked so hard to win this race.
"I was overcome, to say the least."
He was excited, too.
"When I got the caution and the white flag, I knew we were going to come back to the checkered and I was driving a little slow when I was going down the back straightaway," Earnhardt said. "And I said, 'Heck, I don't want to go slow, I want to go fast so I can get back around there.'
"When I took the checkered flag, I got pretty excited, really. It has been a tremendous week and, gosh, it was a great day, a great win."
Earnhardt, the sentimental favorite to win the Super Bowl of stock car racing after losing the race in almost every conceivable way in recent years, led 107 of the 200 laps on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. The 46-year-old Earnhardt took the lead for the last time on lap 140 and held onto it with a flawless pit stop on lap 174.
Earnhardt, who finished second in the "Great American Race" on four separate occasions despite leading late in the race, said he had nothing but positive thoughts in the closing laps Sunday.
"I've been passed here, I've been cut down with a tire, I've done it all," Earnhardt said. "We've lost it every which way you could do it and now we've won it and I don't care how we won it, we won it.
"I had confidence in myself and the team and I was working to keep the race car in front. I was going to be working to do that until somebody turned me over or we got to the finish line."
Last year, he did turn over late in the race, flipping his car on the backstretch in a spectacular late race incident. But this year, Earnhardt could do no wrong.
"I was not thinking of what could happen, I was thinking of what I was doing and focused on what I had to do," he said. "It's over with ... we won the Daytona 500, we conquered it. We won the Daytona 500 and we won't have to answer that question anymore."
Earnhardt picked up his 71st career Winston Cup victory in the third-fastest Daytona 500 by averaging 172.712 mph in a race that was slowed by only three cautions periods for nine laps. There were 13 lead changes among eight drivers in what, arguably, was one of the most exciting Daytona 500s in recent memory.
The final caution flag fell as Earnhardt and Labonte were battling for the lead coming down the backstretch to take the white flag. Labonte's Interstate Batteries Pontiac appeared to be reeling in the black No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet when John Andretti and Lake Speed made contact and spun out coming out of turn two.
Jeremy Mayfield, in a Ford Taurus, finished third followed by Ken Schrader in a Monte Carlo and Rusty Wallace in a Taurus. Schrader started the race and drove all 200 laps despite fracturing his sternum during a hard crash in a qualifying race last Thursday.
Earnhardt said he had enough to hold off Labonte if the race had finished under the green flag.
"I felt like we had another lap in us," Earnhardt said. "Actually, it played into my hand that (the cars on the lead draft behind me) didn't start racing until there was like three or four laps to go. It was my time and that's all I can say.
"We worked so hard in the draft and everybody was trying to get by so we just kept running them and running them -- everything played to us."
After taking the checkered flag, Earnhardt decided to play to the record crowd estimated at 185,000. After being congratulated by virtually each member of the other 42 race teams in a greeting line that spanned the length of pit road, Earnhardt drove his Monte Carlo onto the infield grass and spun a couple of times, leaving a crude '3' etched in the sod above the 'Daytona' logo.
"Twenty years it took for me to win this race," Earnhardt said. "The Daytona 500 is ours -- we won it, we won it, we won it."
Not that The Intimidator is about to rest on his laurels after capturing the only prize in Winston Cup racing that has eluded the sport's second-winningest active driver.
"Is my career complete now?" Earnhardt said. "Hell, no. Another championship is going to make it complete. To win your first Daytona 500 after so many years is just unbelievable ... it's the icing on the cake.
"We're going to go for the championship now. We've got a great team and this team can win a championship."