Earnhardt a Daytona legend

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Larry McReynolds couldn't figure out where Dale Earnhardt had gone.

After 19 years of coming up short in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt finally reached Victory Lane in 1998. He was greeted by crewmen from every team.  Special
After 19 years of coming up short in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt finally reached Victory Lane in 1998. He was greeted by crewmen from every team.

The day before the 1998 Daytona 500, a race Earnhardt was desperate to win in his 20th try, the unlucky driver had disappeared, leaving his crew chief alone to worry. Again.

"He had won the Daytona 498 or 499 so many times, you just wondered if he was ever going to win the 500," said car owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his seven NASCAR championships.

In previous races, flat tires, last-lap passes, broken parts, running out of gas and even hitting a seagull on the backstretch had seemingly conspired to keep Earnhardt out of Victory Lane.

This time, last-minute engine problems threatened to ruin his chances.

"I asked his PR guy, 'Where's Dale?' McReynolds, a longtime crew chief turned TV analyst, said. "He said, 'Well, he's out there with some fans.'

"I'm thinking to myself, 'He picked a hell of a time to rub elbows with these fans.' "

But Earnhardt had a bigger problem when he finally showed up.

Stalking past McReynolds without a word, Earnhardt rummaged through the tool chests until he found some glue.

"He told me that when he had got out of the car on pit road there was a little girl there from the Make A Wish Foundation," McReynolds explained. "Her wish was to come to Daytona and meet Dale Earnhardt. He had spent this time with her, and she gave him this lucky penny."

With the penny glued on the dashboard, the Childress braintrust moved on to the engine, deciding to roll the dice and change it.

"The thing I stressed to the guys was this engine change could be the most important engine change we ever make," McReynolds said.

With about 25 laps to go, it was McReynolds who decided to change just two tires on the final pit stop.

Earnhardt led everybody out of the pits and led the rest of the way.

As Earnhardt drove slowly onto pit lane, every crewman from every team and just about every NASCAR official in the pits lined up to congratulate him.

Earnhardt's victory, without question, the most popular win in the first 49 editions of "The Great American Race," has become part of Daytona legend.

Only three years later, Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

That lucky penny remains forever affixed to Earnhardt's winning car in the Richard Childress Racing museum in Welcome, N.C.

"I think we had used every lucky charm we could," Childress said. "That one worked that day. To win the race, and to have the penny there and have the little girl involved, was pretty special. It was emotional.

"A couple of years ago, we brought the little lady who gave Dale the penny to the museum. I took the wheel off and sat her down in the car. It was pretty amazing."

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