By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
15 years. Today marks 15 years since the darkest day in NASCAR’s 68-year history. The day I’m of course referring to is the tragic moment when the world lost seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt was at the forefront of NASCAR’s popularity boom from the late 1980s to the 1990s. He was raw, real, and was never afraid to lay the bumper to anyone if it took doing so to take home the trophy. Earnhardt was the blue-collar guy, who wasn’t there to make friends. Earnhardt was a driver that everyone could relate to. He was the man who worked his way from producing textiles at a factory in Kannapolis, North Carolina, to eventually becoming one of the most talented, and richest drivers to ever get behind the wheel of a racecar.
It wasn’t an easy journey for the kid who dropped out of school in the ninth grade but once Earnhardt made it to NASCAR, he dominated. On the anniversary of that fateful day at Daytona in 2001, I figured it would be best to look back at the sterling career of Earnhardt.
To this day, Earnhardt is still the only driver to win rookie of the year honors one season (1979) and go on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup (then Winston Cup) championship the following year (1980). That is absolutely unheard of, and is a feat that I don’t think we’ll ever see matched. The incredible thing about Earnhardt is that he stayed competitive throughout his entire career. While most would have some down years in their careers, Earnhardt was the one steady through the ’80s and ’90s. The worst Earnhardt ever ranked in the point standings after a full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series was 12th in 1982 and 1992. Aside from those two seasons, Earnhardt finished inside the top-10 of the championship standings every time he competed full-time, including a second-place finish in the standings in 2000 (his final full season).
Over 676 starts in NASCAR’s Premier Series, Earnhardt accumulated 76 wins (seventh all-time), 281 top-fives and 428 top-10 finishes. His seven series championships is tied for most all-time with Richard Petty. But the stats only tell half of the story for Earnhardt, as he was a guy who could elevate the performance of his racecar.
When Earnhardt brought a 20th-place car to the track, he would find a way to finish top-10. If he had a top-10 racecar, he’d find himself in contention, and most of the time he would pull that car into victory lane.
One Tough Customer
Earnhardt was also as tough as nails.
When a ball joint failed on Earnhardt’s car in the 1982 race at Pocono, he slammed into the side of Tim Richmond’s vehicle. Richmond would go spinning, while Earnhardt would slam into the wall and flip over. Earnhardt attempted to crawl from his wreckage, but he couldn’t get to his feet on his own. Richmond would help Earnhardt, who was hopping on one leg, to the ambulance. According to the documentary ‘Dale,’ Earnhardt would break his left leg in the crash, but he wouldn’t disclose the injury to NASCAR until long after it was healed so he wouldn’t have to miss any races.
What kind of intestinal fortitude does it take to blank out the pain of a broken leg to race?
14 years later, Earnhardt was leading the fall race at Talladega when all hell broke loose at lap 118. Sterling Marlin attempted to get around Earnhardt, and as Marlin worked to the right rear of Earnhardt’s car Ernie Irvan made contact with Marlin. This caused a chain reaction that sent Earnhardt head-on into the front stretch wall at nearly full speed.
Earnhardt would flip wildly as the field was racing back to the line. Earnhardt would be tagged multiple times. When the No. 3 machine finally came to a halt, Earnhardt had a broken sternum.
Two weeks later, Earnhardt would grab the pole position at Watkins Glen International while still recovering from injuries sustained at Talladega.
Rattle His Cage
It didn’t matter who Earnhardt battled against over the years, whether it was Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip or modern day legends like Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, or Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt always did what had to be done to win the race.
The 1999 night race at Bristol is a prime example. Earnhardt, who started 26th that night, was handed the lead with 10 laps to go when Terry Labonte was spun out by Waltrip as a caution came out for oil on the track.
Labonte would restart in eighth position with five laps to go. Labonte, who now had fresh tires began to cut through the field quickly. With two laps to go, Labonte was on Earnhardt’s back bumper for the lead. Coming to the white flag, Labonte made some door-to-door contact with Earnhardt to take the lead. As the two drivers reached turn one, Earnhardt nudged the back of Labonte’s No. 5 Chevrolet. Labonte would spin from the lead, and Earnhardt would maneuver around him for victory.
It was vintage Earnhardt, and his answer to what happened was just as vintage as the move.
After climbing from his car in victory lane to a theater of disapproved race fans, Earnhardt said, “Terry got into me in the middle of three and four. I was going to get back to him and just rattle him, I wasn’t going to wreck him. But I got to him, and he turned around. I didn’t really mean to turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage though.”
Always a Threat to Win
Regardless of what position Earnhardt was in, and no matter how much adversity was stacked up against the driver of car No. 3, you just couldn’t ever count him out. Earnhardt had a desire to win that just would not fade no matter how bleak the situation appeared. The moment that most personifies this is the 1993 Coca-Cola 600.
Earnhardt started the race that day in the 14th position, but he wasted no time in knifing his way to the lead. By lap 98, Earnhardt grabbed the lead after an electrifying three-wide pass of Ernie Irvan and Mark Martin. This would be the first of four times Earnhardt would lead in the race.
On lap 220, Earnhardt would lose a lap after speeding on pit lane during a green-flag pit stop sequence. Earnhardt would get his lap back, and by lap 320 he was back up to second place. Eight laps later, Earnhardt would make slight contact with Greg Sacks’ No. 68 car, which sent Sacks, a lapped car at the time, spinning. NASCAR would penalize Earnhardt a lap for rough driving.
“I really didn’t get into him, I don’t know why they penalized me,” Earnhardt explained after the race. “He got loose in the air and spun out. I was just close — just close.”
With less than 70 laps to go, it appeared Earnhardt’s shot at victory had evaporated. However, Earnhardt wouldn’t be denied.
When the caution came out for the seventh and final time on the night at lap 351, Earnhardt sped past the leader, Ken Schrader, to get his lap back. Earnhardt would restart in the eighth position on lap 355. Just seven laps later, Earnhardt would muscle past Ernie Irvan for the lead. From there Earnhardt led the final 39 laps on the night. Earnhardt would cross the finish line nearly four seconds ahead of second-year driver, Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt overcame two one-lap deficits in the last 180 laps of that race. The crowd was stunned, the media was stunned. Hell, Earnhardt himself seemed stunned.
The examples of Earnhardt’s incredible driving prowess are as endless as they were legendary. Things like overcoming two lap penalties in the closing laps at Charlotte, three-wide passes at Bristol, passes in the grass and methodically working your way from 18th to 1st in the final four laps at Talladega weren’t thought of as possibilities — until Earnhardt did them, of course. That is what I will most remember Earnhardt for, endlessly achieving the impossible.
Images: ISC Archives via Getty Images