First Nationwide Win


A disappointing 37th-place finish in the 1998 season-opener at Daytona didn't deter the 23-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., as he responded with finishes of 16th at Rockingham, second at Las Vegas, third at Nashville, 10th at Darlington, and second at Bristol after winning the pole. Even with his string of good luck, Junior wasn't convinced he was good enough to turn this love of racing into a profession. That all changed in the seventh race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway. Starting 16th, Dale Jr. overcame contact with another car, an unscheduled pit stop, and a back-of-the-pack restart to find himself in the top 10 as the laps winded down. With Joe Nemechek leading and Elliott Sadler second, Tony Eury Sr. called his driver to pit road under caution for four fresh tires. Junior restarted in sixth place with six laps to go. He made quick work of all the cars in front of him and caught the leader, Nemechek, with relative ease. The problem would be passing him. Junior found his opportunity coming off Turn 4 as the white flag waved. A lapped car was hanging on the fender of Nemechek, so Dale Jr. drove low to pass them both, his left-side wheels actually touching the grass. Sadler, too, came charging to the front, setting up a last-lap duel that resulted in Earnhardt Jr. edging Sadler by .178 seconds to the finish line. After averaging only one win every 53 starts in the late model ranks, Dale Jr. had just won his first Nationwide Series race in his 16th start. As he returned home that night, signs and decorations covered his front yard. One sign said, "CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR FIRST WIN, COLD BEER WAITING." The party was just getting started.