Race Weekend Central

Racing at the Beach: Dale Earnhardt Tries His Best & Comes Up Short at Daytona, 1990-93

Editor’s Note: The following is part nine of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss the first eight editions? Don’t worry… we have the links for you here. Enjoy!

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

Dale Earnhardt must have felt his blood pressure rise whenever he recalled the Daytona 500 of 1990, and who can blame him? For another driver, though, it was the high point of his career altogether.

Ken Schrader won the pole position for the third straight year, continuing his streak of every event since the restrictor plate was reintroduced at Daytona. Schrader’s luck turned bad in the first qualifier, however, as a last-lap crash wiped out the car and forced Schrader to a backup. Geoff Bodine, debuting with the team owned by master strategist Junior Johnson, used a “no pit” strategy to take the win instead. Harry Gant, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip trailed the Budweiser Ford to the line.

Crowd favorite Richard Petty had bought the partisan crowd to their feet by leading 14 laps in the middle stages of the event before having to pit, dropping to fifth position in the final rundown.

While everyone knew Earnhardt was strong that year, there was a big surprise in the second qualifier, as crusty old veteran Dick Trickle took the lead on the 22nd lap and kept Earnhardt at bay. Finally, Earnhardt made it around Trickle with three laps to go, and a heartbeat later Trickle ran out of gas. Trickle’s car slowed suddenly and Bill Elliott, who was in hot pursuit to try to run down Dale, knocked into the rear of Dick’s car and sent him spinning. Elliott managed to finish second, a half-second behind Dale. Another surprise, Jimmy Spencer, came home third.

A NASCAR decision before the race that year set off a firestorm of controversy.

As most people interpreted the rules, Schrader having to go to a backup car meant he lost his pole position and had to start from the rear. Indeed, that had happened to Cale Yarborough back in 1983. But NASCAR decided while Schrader would have to go to the rear of the field, he would retain credit for the pole position. The importance of that seemingly quaint decision was that the UNOCAL 76 Bonus, for a driver that won a race from the pole, starting at $7,600 and adding $7,600 more each week until the prize was claimed, was up to $212,800, substantially more than the prize money for winning the event.

Earnhardt, who qualified second, was incensed, voicing his opinion he should be the man driving for a chance at the big payday. Of course, you never wanted to have to race with Earnhardt when he was angry… it tended to make him faster.

The green flag dropped for the 1990 Daytona 500 and Earnhardt got gone, storming into the lead and relinquishing it only long enough to for pit stops for the black jet posing as a Chevrolet racecar. Equally impressive was Schrader, who had started in the 40th position but was up to second after the first 40 laps. Shortly thereafter, though, Schrader lost an engine, and it seemed Earnhardt was in complete control of the event. He did, in fact, lead 155 of 200 laps that day, including the white-flag lap.

Unfortunately, he did not lead lap 200. Earnhardt had a clear advantage over Derrike Cope, who was running a surprisingly strong second and thrilled to be there, driving the No. 10 Purloator Ford for Bob Whitcomb.

See also
That's History Profiles: Derrike Cope

In turn 2 on the last lap, the infamous Chicken Bone Alley, Earnhardt cut down a tire, legend says, when he ran over a chicken bone tossed onto the track by a slovenly fan. Earnhardt felt the tire deflating, but with victory so close, didn’t lift off the throttle in a desperate attempt to get back to the checkered flag before the tire blew. He made it to the third corner, where the tire let loose and Earnhardt headed for the wall.

Cope slipped underneath him, with Terry Labonte and a hard-charging Elliott in his wake. They finished in that order at the line, with Cope collecting his first-ever Cup victory in the 500. Ricky Rudd finished fourth, and in a bit of a miracle, Earnhardt managed to keep his Chevy out of the wall, coming home a heartbreaking fifth. The UNOCAL bonus ended up rolling over two more races, with Kyle Petty finally claimed the prize at $228,000 (plus the $64,000 first-prize check and a Rolls Royce thrown in by a grateful Felix Sabates) at Rockingham. Ironically, that was more than Cope won for the Daytona 500, even without the car.

New pit stop rules greeted the Winston Cup regulars when they paid their February pilgrimage to Daytona in 1991. Elliott’s crew member Mike Ritch had been killed in a pit-road accident during the last race of 1990 when Rudd hit some oil and crushed Ritch into the side of Elliott’s car while he was changing a rear tire. To try to eliminate the danger on pit road, new NASCAR rules forbid changing tires under caution-flag periods. Security was also extremely tight at the track that year because the United States was involved in Operation Desert Storm and there were fears of a terrorist attack.

Like during the fuel crises, economic uncertainty about the war had some companies reluctant to commit to a promotional expense like sponsoring a racecar. Thus, several good teams showed up to the Daytona 500 without sponsorship. In a patriotic move, R.J. Reynolds arranged to have five cars painted in the colors of the five branches of the armed services. The most famous, of course, was Alan Kulwicki in the Army car, but the others were Mickey Gibbs with Air Force colors, Buddy Baker with the Marine colors, Greg Sacks carrying the Navy sponsorship and Dave Marcis in the Coast Guard car.

Davey Allison, who had earned the pole for the 500, took the first qualifier race in convincing style, leading flag-to-flag. His victory was sealed when a crash involving World of Outlaws star Sammy Swindell and road-race ace Dorsey Schroeder brought out the caution with two laps to go.

Looking like the King of old, Richard Petty made a daring pass on Hut Stricklin to come home second. Stricklin, who was running the Bobby Allison Motorsports car, gave his boss, who had finally returned to the racetrack after the 1988 Pocono wreck, something extra to cheer about. Earnhardt led every lap of the second qualifier, though Ernie Irvan made a gallant charge at the end that involved a little beating and banging to make a race out of it. Kyle Petty came home third.

The race proved to be an exciting one, relatively incident-free for most of the event. There were 21 lead changes in all among nine different drivers, and several fresh faces found themselves in the mix for the win. Davey Allison and Earnhardt led most of the race, but Rick Mast, Kyle Petty, Rusty Wallace, Irvan, Joe Ruttman and Sterling Marlin all took their turn at the front as well.

Of course, if you take all those fast drivers, mix them with worn tires because no one could afford to pit under green for fresh rubber, add in the dwindling laps in the race, the pressure of the biggest event of the year, and bake them in the heat of the Florida sun, you had a perfect recipe for disaster.

Things started to go wrong on lap 185 when Robby Gordon (yes, that Robby Gordon) ran into Richard Petty, wrecking both cars and bringing out the yellow. Normally, all the leaders would have pitted for fresh rubber at that point for the final shootout, but the new pit-road rule forbade them to do so. That meant Wallace took the green flag after the caution in the lead, but his tires were so worn Earnhardt made quick work of Rusty, with Irvan following in Dale’s wake. Kyle Petty tried to pass Wallace as well but slid up the track, making contact with the Miller-sponsored car and causing chaos in the process.

A nasty wreck ensued, one that also eliminated Waltrip, Cope, Gant and Stricklin. Petty was able to continue, but his car was too torn up to hope to win the race.

The green flag flew again with five laps to go, and Irvan stunned race-day favorite Earnhardt by getting a jump on him and passing him into the first corner. Davey Allison tried to muscle past Earnhardt as well, and as they fought over second Irvan opened a comfortable lead. Earnhardt was trying to go low on Allison when his worn tires caused Dale to spin out and collect Allison in the process, putting Davey hard into the wall. As Earnhardt spun down the track, Kyle Petty hit him head on. Earnhardt was able to get his car pointing in the right direction, but Allison and Petty had to be towed off the back straight.

That brought out another caution and Irvan limped to the finish line under yellow, nursing a car that was cutting out due to a fuel pickup problem. Marlin, Ruttman and Mast (in only his third Winston cup start) finished 2-3-4; Earnhardt recovered for fifth. Dale Jarrett, in his debut in the Wood Brothers car, finished sixth after surviving those wild last 15 laps. Meanwhile, Kulwicki had the best finish of any of the armed forces cars, finishing eighth.

After the race, there were some heated exchanges, with Allison having some pretty pointed words for Earnhardt after their tangle. Wallace was also furious with Kyle Petty and throwing around some $5,000 words. Petty played the peacemaker, saying none of the incidents were any driver’s fault; instead, the fault lay with NASCAR’s new pit-road rules that had had everyone out there skating around on badly worn tires.

While the rules made pit road safer, they turned the last 15 laps of the 1991 Daytona 500 into a high-speed demolition derby. Most of the drivers echoed Kyle’s sentiments given a little time to cool off. NASCAR tried several solutions, some more ridiculous than others, before adopting the present day pit-road speed limits to try to keep crew members safe.

There had been a major game of musical chairs as far as driver seats during the offseason leading up to the 1992 Daytona 500. Jarrett had left the Wood Brothers team to drive for a new team owned by Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, and Morgan Shepherd had gotten the nod for the Wood Brothers’ ride. The move that had everyone talking, however, was Elliott leaving his family team to drive for Junior Johnson. The “Dream Team,” involving the legendary car owner and driver, seemed poised for a big debut at Daytona, as both Junior and Bill had had a lot of success there.

In a mild upset, however, it was Elliott’s Junior Johnson stablemate Marlin who edged out Bill for the pole. Elliott qualified for the outside pole, making it an all-Junior Johnson front row. Also evident on pole day that the Fords were going to be a force to reckon with. Earnhardt, who qualified third in his Chevy, was the only bowtie representative to end up in the top six cars.

The other big story at the ’92 Daytona 500 was that the event marked the first race of Richard Petty’s farewell “Fan Appreciation Tour.” On pole day the King, a seven-time Daytona 500 winner, posted the 10th-fastest speed.

The first qualifier that year was a shootout between Marlin in his Ford and Earnhardt in his Chevy. For everyone else, it was a battle of survival as several jarring wrecks decimated the field. Richard Petty was swept up in an early wreck that also ruined the chances of Kulwicki, Labonte and AJ Foyt. Earnhardt took off after the green waved again, but Marlin was able to catch and pass him; Earnhardt got into the back of Marlin five laps later and sent him spinning.

To Earnhardt, it was “one of them racing deals.” Sterling had a decidedly less sunny attitude towards the wreck.

Kyle Petty and Jarrett tangled later in the event, giving Gibbs his first taste of how tough a business racing can be as he watched a brand new car wiped out. As the checkered flag flew, it was Earnhardt who streaked by with the win; Martin came home second and Irvan finished third. Elliott won the second qualifier, as expected, but to do so he had to hold off a determined challenge from Shepherd and the Wood Brothers Ford. Davey Allison bought his Ford home third.

At Daytona, you have to have horsepower, you have to be running at the finish and you need a car that can handle the high banks, but some days what you need more than anything else is a little good luck. Such was the case at the 1992 event. Marlin and Elliott were easily the class of the field and dominated the race early in the going. A brief rain shower bought out the caution flag, and when racing resumed Elliott and Marlin were running side-by-side for the lead. Irvan tried to dive low and pass them both at once going into turn 2.

The cause of the incident that followed is still a matter of considerable debate, though at the time Irvan received most of the blame… but the outcome was vivid. The three cars came together, Elliott hit the wall, and Katie-Bar-The-Door, the ensuing wreck seemed to go on forever, as most of the frontrunners were swept up into the mess.

In addition to Elliott, Irvan, and Marlin, Earnhardt, Wallace, Martin, Jarrett, Waltrip, Stricklin and Schrader all had their cars seriously damaged. Kulwicki and Richard Petty received lesser damage and were able to continue, but their hopes for a win had vanished in the clouds of tire smoke along the backstretch.

Davey Allison deserved a Harry Houdini award because he was right in the midst of things when the accident started, but went high and cleared the wreck without suffering any damage. Allison and Shepherd then battled for the rest of the afternoon as the wounded cars slowly began returning to the track looking like Saturday-night modifieds, sans their front-end sheetmetal.

In the end, Allison prevailed over Shepherd by two car lengths while Bodine, Kulwicki and Trickle rounded out the top five. Ever gracious, Davey told reporters while the Daytona 500 was the biggest win of his career, it had been more of a thrill to finish second to his dad, Bobby, in the 1988 event. The 91st-lap wreck eventually played a significant factor in that year’s title chase. Had Elliott finished within 12 laps of the leader, a near certainty as fast as his car was, he would have been the 1992 Winston Cup champion.

Some things never seem to change. Going into the 1993 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was an odds-on favorite to finally claim the one race that had eluded him. However, on pole day it was Kyle Petty who took the top spot. Kyle had a little extra incentive to run well that year; car owner Felix Sabates had offered Kyle a $1,000,000 bonus to win the Daytona 500.

It seemed appropriate, however, in the first Daytona 500 since Richard Petty’s retirement that his son should claim the pole. For sentimental fans it was doubly nice that the Dale Jarrett, son of two-time Grand National champion Ned Jarrett, started alongside Kyle on the front row. The new generation of drivers was now clearly in control.

An even newer face on the scene stunned everyone by winning the first qualifier race of 1993. Jeff Gordon, who had made his first Winston Cup start at the 1992 season finale in Atlanta, passed Daytona Master Elliott on lap 22 and never lost that lead despite Elliott’s determined efforts to get around him. Elliott finished second, while Kyle Petty came home third.

In the second qualifier, another second-generation driver by the name of Earnhardt won the event, holding off a hard driving Bodine in the process. Indy car legend Al Unser Jr. made in an inauspicious debut in the Winston Cup Series that year, running a fourth entry out of the Rick Hendrick stables: A cut tire on the 10th lap put Unser hard into the wall and relegated him to 25th place. Fortunately, his qualifying speed got him into the big show. Dale Jarrett, in his sophomore season with Joe Gibbs Racing, came home third.

Earnhardt showed he meant business the following Sunday, storming into the lead on lap 7 for the first time, and once again leading the most laps of the Daytona 500. His day was not without incident, however; Unser Jr. might not have realized it’s wise at Daytona to give a certain black car with a big white number 3 on the side a wide berth. Unser had been making a determined charge through the field when he and Dale got into a little argument over the same piece of real estate in the third corner.

A moment later, Little Al was spinning off the track and was struck by Bobby Hillin Jr., causing Hillin to hit the infield grass and shot back up onto the track onto oncoming traffic. Kyle Petty, who had led the event three times and was indeed looking like a million bucks, got on the binders, but was unable to avoid Hillin’s car. After the wreck, the pair had to be separated as Kyle gave Bobby about a million reasons why he didn’t appreciate being wrecked out of the race.

Wallace, whose luck at Daytona is about as foul as Earnhardt’s, got involved in a savage wreck on lap 170 that sent him rolling, his Miller entry shedding parts like a dog shaking fresh out of the creek shed’s water droplets. Miraculously, Rusty was not seriously injured in the wreck that dominated that year’s TV highlight wrapup shows.

With 21 laps to go, Earnhardt retook the lead and was battling with three other drivers, including Gordon, who was making a determined effort to win his very first Daytona 500. Also in contention were Bodine and Stricklin. Dale Jarrett seemed to come out of nowhere, though, tracking down the lead foursome with only 10 laps to go. Jarrett made quick work of Bodine and Stricklin, then got around Gordon with two laps to go and set his eyes on the rear bumper of the Goodwrench Chevy.

It was time to choose dancing partners to draft with for the final five miles. Gordon stuck with Earnhardt while Bodine chose Jarrett. Stricklin was voting an even-handed “either of the above,” trying to hook onto whichever pair seemed to be moving faster.

As the cars screamed around the Daytona turns, it became clear Earnhardt was battling a loose racecar, while Jarrett was able to hug the white line. Coming out of turn 4 to take the white flag, Jarrett got alongside Earnhardt, but at the stripe Earnhardt still had him by a nose. Going into turn 1, Jarrett finally swept into the lead, dragging Bodine in his wake. The Intimidator was able to get around Bodine on the back straight, but Jarrett was making his Interstate Chevy awfully wide trying to prevent a pass.

Earnhardt could see that tantalizing checkered flag just ahead and tried every trick in his book, but in the end, Dale Jarrett prevailed by a mere .16 seconds over his rival. It was a great finish, and like any good show, the Dale and Dale act had a sequel a few years down the road.

Jarrett was ebullient but gracious in victory lane, saying that Earnhardt was the best driver on the track, which made winning the event that much sweeter. In taking the 1993 Daytona 500, D.J. was able to add one of the few crown jewel trophies to the Jarrett family trophy case that had eluded his father. Earnhardt was somewhat less gracious. “Big damn deal, I lost another Daytona 500,” Earnhardt muttered to reporters while storming to his truck.

Earnhardt was somewhat more gracious once he cooled off. Ned Jarrett had been calling the race from the booth for CBS, and the normally staid and professional announcer had grown so excited watching his son battling for the biggest win of his career, Ned had sided openly with D.J. and was even hollering advice on how to hold off the other Dale from the booth in one of the more spontaneous and fun moments of television race coverage.

Afterwards, Ned Jarrett felt bad over what he felt was a lapse of professionalism, and the next week at Rockingham, he apologized to Earnhardt. Dale winked and told Ned, “Don’t forget… I’m a daddy, too.”

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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