April 29, 1951 – Feb. 18 2001
7-Time NASCAR Cup Champion
~ 1980 ~ 1986 ~ 1987 ~ 1990 ~ 1991 ~ 1993 ~ 1994 ~
76 NASCAR Cup Wins
1998 Daytona 500 Champion
1979 Rookie of the Year
How do you start a legendary career? Win rookie of the year honors then the very next season win the series championship. That is exactly what Dale Earnhardt did, becoming the first ever driver ever to do so. Collecting his first win at Bristol in his rookie season was only fitting for what career was in store for Earnhardt. Bristol being a track where you are fender to fender, bumper to bumper with everyone on the track, you have to push the competition out of the way to find the way to victory lane. Throughout his career Dale Earnhardt did a lot of pushing, so much so that his aggressive style earned him the nickname “The Intimidator”.
Often known for his famed black No. 3 with Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt actually started his career with Rod Osterlund in car No. 2. It was in that car he collected his rookie title and series title in 1979 and 1980. Mid-way through the 1981 season Osterlund sold the team and Earnhardt left to Richard Childress Racing to finish the rest of the season. Bud Moore would have Earnhardt in the number 15 for the 1982 and 1983 seasons; it wasn’t until 1984 that Earnhardt teamed with Childress once again, this time for good in the No. 3.
Dale Earnhardt won nearly everywhere and everything. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1995 was the biggest win of his career, only because for so many years he had failed to win the biggest race NASCAR had to offer, the Daytona 500. So often at Daytona, Earnhardt found himself in the lead only to end up with a mechanical issue, a flat tire, or just get shuffled out late and finish second. Four second place finishes in fact until he achieved the biggest victory, in what had been the toughest race in his storied career. It took 20 attempts, 20 years, but in 1998 Earnhardt would end up winning the Daytona 500. Everyone in NASCAR knew what this win meant to him and they showed the ultimate sign of respect and sportsmanship, as every member from every team lined up all the way down pit road with their hand out to congratulate Earnhardt. Never before and never since has anything like this happened in the sport of NASCAR, it truly was a legendary moment.
Earnhardt is still Daytona International Speedway’s all time winner at the track with 34 victories. Many of those victories coming in qualifying races and non point’s races. Dale Earnhardt is also 4-time champion of the IROC (International Race of Champion) series. The “Man in black” also built a race team known as Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, he still drove for Richard Childress, but he hired Steve Park as his first full time driver for his team. By 2000, Earnhardt had Park and son Dale Earnhardt Jr, racing under the D.E.I banner. Before the 2001 season Dale Earnhardt made a decision that many were calling a mistake, by bringing in close friend Michael Waltrip. A journeyman driver with no wins in a NASCAR record 462 career starts Waltrip was set to drive the third car in the D.E.I stable.
The 2001 Daytona 500 showed the strength of the team that Earnhardt built. Each time Earnhardt was at the front of the pack in with his famed black No. 3 he had to contend with his son Dale Earnhardt Jr, or Steve Park. The only driver he didn’t have to contend with was the Michael Waltrip, who for most of the race ran toward the middle or back half of the pack. With just a handful of laps remaining the controversial hire would prove his worth and make it up to the front to join his teammates and their car owner. When a crash in the closing laps took out Steve Park, it was up to Dale Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip to get Daytona’s coveted trophy, the Harley J. Earl trophy. In what is now an everlasting image to so many, Earnhardt displayed the ultimate act of selflessness. Instead of going after his second Daytona 500 win, he chose to stay in third and block the rest of the pack while his two drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr ran first and second . The risky hire of his close friend Michael Waltrip would pay off as he would collect his first win in his 463rd career start in the biggest race of the year. Earnhardt’s son finished second, and now the NASCAR world would consider D.E.I. a legitimate contender in the series. Earnhardt would never make it back around from the white flag lap. Entering the third turn on the final lap, the world lost Dale Earnhardt.
The next week Steve Park grabbed an emotional victory at Rockingham. Richard Childress would change the car number from 3 to 29, and hire Kevin Harvick to drive car 29. In his third career start in a race that the previous year Dale had won by inches, Harvick too would win by inches to take his first career victory. Later that season the series would return to Daytona. In befitting fashion Dale Jr. won the race and Michael Waltrip finished second. The loss of Earnhardt is still felt today, but surely with a season like 2001 we know that somewhere Dale is watching.