DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. -- The history of sport overflows with stories about great figures whose careers seem unfulfilled because they didn't win the big one.

Quarterback Fran Tarkenton never won the Super Bowl. Sam Snead didn't win the U.S. Open. Ernie Banks -- "Mr. Cub" -- never made it to the World Series.

In auto racing, Dale Earnhardt is emerging as a likely candidate for the heartache and frustration of winning everything except the race he most covets.

Stock car racing's dominant driver the last five years, Earnhardt has won 48 Winston Cup races -- ninth on the all-time list -- and been the NASCAR champion three of the last five years. And he is NASCAR's all-time money-winner, having earned nearly $13 million in 16 years of racing.

But a victory in the Daytona 500 -- the NASCAR race -- is missing from his resume.

"This is certainly the race that means the most to me and to every driver out here," said Earnhardt, 38. "I want to win it more than any other race."

After last year's Daytona 500, there is growing doubt he ever will: With a mile to go, Earnhardt was in the lead and in a seemingly unbeatable position. But then some debris came between him and victory lane. He ran over something, shredding his right tire, and the shortest mile became the longest -- he limped across the finish in fifth place.

Derrike Cope, a struggling driver who had not won a Winston Cup race, had the title that has eluded Earnhardt.

"Derrike just lucked into it," Earnhardt said moments after the race. "It is the biggest letdown I've ever had in racing."

It was the kind of defeat that could haunt his future efforts to win here.

But he refuses to linger on the subject.

"That happened last year; I don't remember last year," he said. "In this business you forget what happened and move on. I never spent any time thinking about last year's race. It's long forgotten."

But if he never wins the Daytona 500?

"I don't have to even think about that because it's not going to happen. I am going to win the Daytona 500. I will win this race."

Earnhardt's confidence is unshaken. He seems more sure of himself than ever.

He is, after all, coming off one of the most successful seasons in racing, capturing nine of 29 Winston Cup events and winning the points championship, and his car seems even faster and his skills sharper heading into Sunday's 500.

In his No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, Earnhardt put on an exhibition in Sunday's Busch Clash that left many drivers in awe.

"He was ahead of everyone last year, and I don't see anyone catching him this year," Richard Petty said.

Earnhardt can barely contain his excitement.

"We've gotten stronger each year, and that's going to continue," he said. "We're getting better all the time."