Earnhardt's luck holds, and it is still all tough 15th loss may be hardest to take

February 15, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt's luck ran out yesterday, two laps from the finish of the 35th annual Daytona 500.

It wasn't the first time, but it may have been one of the hardest to take. There were no flat tires or accidents. No poor calculations on gas mileage or wild flying birds to place the blame on.

He was simply outdriven to the finish line by Dale Jarrett, who won his first Daytona 500 after only five tries.

"Everybody wanted to know if I could finally win the Daytona 500 on my 15th try," Earnhardt said. "I guess it'll take 16 now. It's tough to run the way we did all week and have the success we've had all week and not win the big one.

"I'm getting tired of it. But we've had some pretty good seasons in the past when we haven't won here, so maybe that'll happen again. We're not going to get down on ourselves."

All week Earnhardt had been the man to beat. His GM Goodwrench Lumina had won the Busch Clash, the race for last season's winners. He had dominated his 125-mile qualifier. And he won the Goody's 300 Grand National race.

Yet, he could not find a way to stretch his luck through 500 miles yesterday. For a long while it seemed he might.

He appeared to lose his patience shortly after a re-start. With Derrike Cope and Harry Gant leading the field, driving side-by-side like Mom and Pop out for a Sunday drive, the drivers who had been leading the race, Earnhardt and Jarrett, were trapped in rear positions.

On Lap 157, Earnhardt decided to go for it. He squeezed his car between the outside wall and Al Unser Jr. going into Turn 3. Earnhardt tapped Unser's bumper and hit him again coming out of 4. Unser lost control, collected Bobby Hillin, who in turn took out Kyle Petty, while Earnhardt drove on.

When Michael Waltrip caused problems on the backstretch on Lap 168, Earnhardt and Jarrett were ahead of it, and streaked to safety, while Rusty Wallace went for a frightening ride, barrel rolling at least eight times, before finally coming to a stop unhurt.

But then Earnhardt's luck vanished. Having dominated much of the afternoon (leading for 107 laps to tie Jarrett for the Winston Cup point lead), he was coming through the third turn when his car got a little loose, opening a hole through which Jarrett drove into the lead on the very last lap.

"I almost hated to see it happen," said Ned Jarrett, two-time Winston Cup champion and the father of the winner, after announcing the frantic finish on CBS-TV. "Dale is such a great race car driver and you want him to win this race. But, time after time, something happens that he doesn't, and you almost feel sorry for him. But I know he's going to win it sooner or later."

Jarrett said Earnhardt has suffered here from a lack of car at times and a lack of luck all the time.

"We've lost this race about every way you can," Earnhardt said, after a brief cooling-off period. "We've come close, but I guess all that's left to do now is to come back next year and try to win it any way we can."

While no one was handing out blame, one reason for the loss may have come from a decision not to change tires on the team's last pit stop. Jarrett took on fresh tires and so did rookie Jeff Gordon, who finished fifth. But Earnhardt, saying the set of tires on his car felt good, decided to stand pat. New rubber might have prevented the Turn 3 slip, but no one knows.

"We're not going to second-guess," said car owner Richard Childress. "We're leaving here in good position, and we've got 29 more races to run. I'd say we feel good, except for the fact that everyone wants to win this race, and you can't help but carry an empty feeling with you. But tomorrow we'll be happy we finished second."

Earnhardt's near-misses

Yesterday's result added to Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 near-misses:

Year . Finish . How he lost

1980 ... 4th . Ran out of gas on lap 181

1984 ... 2nd . Outrun by Cale Yarborough at finish

1987 ... 5th . Had lead when forced to pit for gas with 10 laps left

1988 .. 10th . Leading with five laps left, got passed

1989 ... 3rd . Had lead, forced to pit for gas

1990 ... 5th . Leading on last lap, got flat tire

1991 ... 5th . Leading at mid-race when car was hit by low-flying seagulls*

1993 ... 2nd . Leading on Lap 198, passed by Dale Jarrett entering last lap *-Bird lodged in air dam, causing overheating that allowed Ernie Irvan to pass him for victory with three laps left.

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