DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt came into the Daytona 500 winner's interview for the first time in 20 tries yesterday shouting, "I'm here!, I'm here! I'm here!" And then he reached inside his sweat- and champagne-soaked uniform, pulled out a stuffed monkey and hurled it with force onto the floor.
"There," he said, with great delight, "that monkey's off my back."
It was one big monkey. Through 19 previous starts, Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, had found almost every possible way to lose this 500. He had a sea gull hit him, a tire blow, gas run out and just plain been out-run.
But no one outran him this time. Nothing broke. Nothing hit him. Nothing happened.
The man who holds the record for all-time wins on this track with 30, finally captured the elusive Daytona 500, in its 40th edition at the start of NASCAR's 50th anniversary season.
To do it, Earnhardt held off pole-sitter Bobby Labonte in a race back to a caution flag on lap 199 and then drove his car briskly back to the finish line to claim victory.
"I was overcome after I took the caution flag," he said. "My eyes watered up in the race car. I don't think I really cried. My eyes watered up on that lap coming to get the checkered. I knew I was going to win no matter what happened then."
And when he headed down pit road, he was nearly overcome again. All the pit crews of his competitors lined up to high-five and shake his hand.
"I knew a few guys would come out," said Earnhardt, who had not won anywhere in 59 races, dating to March 1996. "But to see all those guys coming out, that really made you feel like those guys were really pulling for you and they were glad to see you win the Daytona 500. That was pretty awesome, easing down pit road."
As Earnhardt talked about his winning experience, another amazing thing was happening behind him, 10 stories below him.
In a joyous celebration after touching all those crewmen's hands, he had turned donuts in his race car down there, on the beautifully manicured grass that separates the front stretch from pit road. And now, fans were picking up blades of grass and clumps of turf and placing them gently inside their coolers.
When they finally got up from their knees and looked up, there, above them, was Earnhardt watching through the press box's two-story glass windows. They waved and he waved back.
As Earnhardt turned to resume talking about his victory, the mass of fans, who had been waving, somehow organized themselves into the number three, his car number, and waited until he noticed them. Then came the number eight, in recognition of his pursuit of an eighth championship. And then, still not finished, they lined up along the top of the huge Daytona sign painted on the grass, got down on their knees, raised their arms over their heads and bowed to him, over and over and over.
Earnhardt, sitting between his car owner Richard Childress and his crew chief Larry McReynolds, stared at each new offering.
"I can't believe these fans," he said. "They know I'm going for it. I'm telling you right now, I've got a great race team and we're going to get that eighth championship in 1998."
Yesterday's victory gave a clue to how great.
In the early going, he bided his time behind Bobby and Terry Labonte and Sterling Marlin and took his first lead for the first of five times on lap 17.
The first round of pit stops would put him back in the field, as Jeff Gordon dominated from lap 59 through 106. And at that point, Gordon appeared the car to beat.
"I don't know how this car can be any better," the defending 500 champ radioed his crew. "It's just awesome."
But Earnhardt remained patient, with McReynolds telling him, "Pull them belts tight, buddy, you have a lot of racing to go."
And Earnhardt raced. On lap 131, he put the nose of his Chevrolet in front of momentary leader Rusty Wallace, who wound up fifth, and never looked back. Before it was over, he would lead 105 total laps, including the final 60.
He came in to the pits leading for his final stop on lap 173. His crew changed two tires, gave the car a can of gas and sent him on his way still in the lead.
Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader, Wallace and Bobby Labonte would all try to get close enough to wrest the lead from the long-suffering Earnhardt. But none of them could.
Earnhardt had said he wanted to take the lead and hold everyone off. It was his game plan. And he worked it to perfection.
When John Andretti and Lake Speed tangled coming out of the second turn on lap 199, bringing out a caution flag, Earnhardt and everyone else knew there was just a mile and a half of this 2.5-mile tri-oval to settle this 500.
"Everyone asks if I was worrying about what might happen," said Earnhardt, 46. "But I wasn't thinking about losing. I was thinking about how I was going to win. I think, even if the race hadn't ended under caution, we had enough to win. Bobby was behind me, but he didn't have any help and I felt like I could hold him off."