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Dale Earnhardt finally claims Daytona 500

This one was mind over matter.

Dale Earnhardt had challenged people to look into his eyes last week and read the determination that was there to finally win the Daytona 500.When it was long over on Sunday, with the driver known as The Intimidator unable to stop smiling, he said his determination to win the race was nearly matched by the attitude of just about everybody he met since he got to Daytona 10 days earlier.

"Just about everybody over the last week have said, `This is your year, This is your year,' " Earnhardt explained. "They'd come up to me in the garage and in restaurants and tell me that. I'm talking about people you wouldn't think would say that, everybody from the top to the bottom.

"Somebody knew something I didn't know, I reckon," he said, flashing that wide grin from below his bushy mustache.

"It was just like Elway when he won the Super Bowl," said Earnhardt, referring to the Denver Broncos quarterback who was a sentimental favorite in January when he got the biggest win of his 16-year career. "We came to Daytona with that look in our eyes and we won. We proved we could win the Daytona 500 and we won't have to answer that question any more."

Earnhardt won the big race in his 20th try, with 185,000 spectators standing and screaming in tribute to the stock car great who captured the race he wanted more than any other.

"Unbelievable," exclaimed team owner Richard Childress after Earnhardt ended a 59-race winless string, the longest of his illustrious career, with the biggest of his 71 victories.

Earnhardt took his slowest drive ever to Victory Lane, shaking hands and slapping highfives with dozens of crewmen from competing teams lining pit road at Daytona International Speedway.

Halfway down pit road, the 46-year-old driver rode his black No. 3 Chevrolet onto the tri-oval grass, between the pit lane and the front straight, etching a number three in the grass with a pair of joyous donuts.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Earnhardt said before turning to hug crew chief Larry McReynolds. "We won it! We won it! We won it!"

Some of the seven-time Winston Cup champion's crewmen cried openly as they returned to the garage area, their driver having at long last captured the richest and most prestigious NASCAR race.

Earnhardt dedicated the victory at the beginning of NASCAR's 50th anniversary season to three people especially close to him, among them T. Wayne Robertson, the head of series sponsor Winston's sports marketing group. He was killed last month in a boating accident.

"This is for T. Wayne, Neil and Ralph Earnhardt, all those people up there who kept me in front," Earnhardt said.

Neil Bonnett was Earnhardt's closest friend in racing. He was killed in 1994 while practicing for the Daytona 500. Earnhardt's late father, Ralph, was an early NASCAR star who died before his son became a racing star.

Earnhardt led five times for 107 of the 200 laps, but the victory was not assured until John Andretti and Lake Speed got together coming off the second turn and brought out the third caution flag on lap 199.

Earnhardt, barely ahead of the Pontiac of pole-winner Bobby Labonte and the Ford Taurus of surprising Jeremy Mayfield, was able to stay out front in the desperate sprint to the flagstand. He used the lapped car of Rick Mast as a blocker off the fourth turn.

Mayfield tried to get past Labonte for a shot at Earnhardt, but the two bumped several times and Earnhardt, finally, was home free.

Labonte held on for second, followed by Mayfield and Ken Schrader, who had a sensational drive while wearing a flak jacket to protect a broken sternum sustained in a qualifying race Thursday.

"I don't know what would have happened with another lap," Labonte said. "I've got to congratulate him. I had a feeling all winter he was going to win it. I guess I should have gone out and bet on him."

The winner said he never doubted he could hold off Labonte and the dangerous line of contenders behind him.

"Years of experience helped me out there," Earnhardt said. "I was working to keep the car out front. I was going to stay there until somebody turned me over or we got to the flagstand.

"I wasn't thinking about anything except doing my job and winning the race. After we got the checkered, we cried a little in the race car," Earnhardt admitted. "It was pretty awesome."

Earnhardt averaged 172.712 mph in the third fastest of the 40 Daytona 500s. His take of the record $7 million purse was $1,059,105.

"This one tops them all," added Earnhardt, whose 30 other victories at Daytona had only added to the frustration of not winning the 500. "It puts the icing on the cake."

The race was slowed by three caution flags for only nine laps. The first of those yellows didn't wave until lap 125.

All the leaders made pit stops during the caution period and that bunched most of the remaining cars. After the race was restarted on lap 130, the leaders found themselves part of a massive 31-car draft.

Eventually, seven cars began to pull away, with Earnhardt in the lead. He was still out front when Andretti and Robert Pressley spun coming off turn two on lap 173, bringing out the second caution and allowing all the leaders to make their final stops.

All the contenders took only right-side tires and gas, and Earnhardt came back onto the 21/2-mile oval in front.

Everyone in the crowd was standing when the green flag waved with 23 laps to go. And the fans stayed on their feet to the end, wanting to see if Earnhardt could hold off the challengers in a race he had lost twice after leading into lap 199 and several other times while battling all the way to the finish.

Jeff Gordon, the defending series and Daytona 500 champion, was one of those challengers, running third in a 16-car lead draft on lap 195. But he suddenly slowed on lap 198 with a dropped cylinder, finishing 16th.