The 1998 NASCAR season was one of anniversaries, including the sanctioning body's 50th birthday and the 40th running of the Daytona 500, but it was also the inaugural season for the Coca-Cola Racing Family.
Previous to 1998, that other soda brand had been the official soft drink of NASCAR. In the meantime, Coke's involvement largely consisted of its sponsorship of Charlotte Motor Speedway's annual Memorial Day Weekend 600-miler. The company had also served in recent years as an associate sponsor on Bill Elliott's No. 94 McDonald's Fords.
In celebration of their new status, Coca-Cola launched a multi-driver marketing platform known as the Coca-Cola Racing Family. Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton, and Todd Bodine made up the initial class. Bodine would be booted from his No. 35 ride in June, ending his involvement, but the remaining seven drivers stayed a part of the Family for years.
Labonte kicked things off quite well for the Coke Racing Family at Speedweeks '98, touring the Daytona International Speedway at 192.415 MPH in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing-owned Pontiac to score the Daytona 500 pole. In Thursday's qualifiers, Jarrett ran second to Sterling Marlin in the first race while Earnhardt led wire-to-wire in picking up his ninth-straight win in the then 125-mile qualifiers. Bodine, meanwhile, finished 22nd in the first race and missed the show, a common theme before and after his dismissal for the team that became known as the Tabasco Fiasco. Rudd also had issues, as he was wrapped up in a multi-car accident early in race two.
As with the previous several Daytona 500 race days, much of the pre-race hype centered around Earnhardt and his No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet as he pursued his long-awaited triumph in the Great American Race. In 19 previous attempts, he had rewritten the book on ways to lose the 500. Twice he had lost the lead on the final lap, first to Derrike Cope in 1990 in one of the 500's all-time greatest upsets when Earnhardt cut a tire entering the third turn, then in 1993 as Jarrett scooted past in the Gibbs-owned 18 for his first of an eventual three Daytona 500 wins.
Right from the start of the race, it was clear once again that The Intimidator had a rocketship. Once he overhauled Mike Skinner in turn three on the 139th lap, the Daytona 500 turned into the "How is Dale going to lose it this time?" 152.5. Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace, among others, took their shots at the black Monte Carlo, but none could get past. Labonte made the last strong charge, and who knows if history might have repeated itself with Earnhardt losing the lead to the green No. 18 on the last lap. Alas, Lake Speed and future CCRF member John Andretti tangled on the backstretch on lap 198, drawing the caution. Earnhardt beat Labonte back to the yellow flag, then spent 2.5 miles taking it all in as he came back around for the checkered flag.
The post-race scene is legendary, with nearly every man from nearly every race team in the 43-car field stepping out to greet Earnhardt as he made his way down pit road. Then he pulled out into the grass, spun a couple of donuts, and drove to victory lane at Daytona for the 31st time. Finally, though, he celebrated as a Daytona 500 champion, climbing - with Coke in hand - atop his race-winning mount. Ultimately, he had led 107 of the 200 laps, the third and final time he would lead over half the distance (he led 155 in 1990 and 107 in 1993 as well). That meant that, unlike one-time archnemesis Darrell Waltrip - who won the 1989 Daytona 500 on fuel mileage on his 17th try - Earnhardt thoroughly outran all comers in finally claming the Great American Race.
For Earnhardt's legions of fans, it was perhaps the greatest moments of their lives as fans of the Man in Black. For his legions of detractors, folks who rooted like all get out for Labonte before the Speed/Andretti dustup ended things, there was a grudging respect towards this long-awaited accomplishment by one of NASCAR's top-three greatest icons ever.
After the 1-2 finish for Earnhardt and Labonte, the rest of the Coca-Cola Racing Family had mixed results in their debut as a unit. Elliott and Petty finished 10th and 11th, respectively, an early bright spot in what would be a nightmare season for both. Jarrett and Burton were both fast early in the race before being knocked out of contention in separate but simultaneous pit-road accidents just past halfway (Jarrett swung wide to miss Mark Martin and banged into Geoff Bodine, while Burton was turned around by '90 winner Cope). Jarrett finished a dismal 34th, while Burton's engine later blew and left him 40th. Finally, ignition failure knocked Rudd out of the race, leaving him 42nd in the final 43-car rundown.
When one looks at the current edition of the Coca-Cola Racing Family, immediate parallels can be drawn with Earnhardt and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. Nevermind the pair's tough-as-nails, yet mischievous demeanors and their raw ability to wheel a race car better than nearly any other man to ever sit in a seat. Stewart seems to have gone to the Earnhardt/Waltrip Institute of Every Way to Lose the 500. He has won 19 races at Daytona, second only to Earnhardt's 34 (after winning the 500, he claimed one more qualifying race victory and two IROC wins before his death in 2001) and knows the way to Daytona's victory lane better than any other driver in the Sprint Cup Series today. He just hasn't been able to find his way there on the right day. Whether he will win on his 15th try or whether he will continue deeper into Earnhardt territory will be one of the most-watched headlines in Sunday's 56th-running of the Great American Race.