By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series drivers get back to work this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, it’s time once again for “Throwback Thursday Theater”. In this week’s edition and in honor of his final trip to the Lone Star State, we look back at the first wins for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in both series, which both came at Texas in 1998 and 2000.
Through the first six races of Earnhardt’s rookie season in the Xfinity Series in 1998, Earnhardt had rebounded from a slow start to storm into Texas with a ton of momentum after scoring the pole and finishing second the previous week at Bristol.
Earnhardt would start the Coca-Cola 300 in 16th, but methodically worked his way up to second place with 20 laps remaining. On lap 181, Earnhardt would find himself in the lead for the first time, but the lead was short lived after the caution flag flew on lap 185.
Under the yellow, Earnhardt decided to give up the lead to pit for four fresh tires, dropping him to third leaving pit road with 11 laps remaining.
Back under green, Earnhardt moved to second just behind Joe Nemechek prior to the final caution flag flying on lap 191 for the spinning car of Glenn Allen, Jr. The caution would mean a five lap dash for the checkered flag as Nemechek led with Earnhardt in second.
Earnhardt fell back in behind Nemechek on the restart but kept the nose of his No. 3 Chevrolet just close enough to Nemechek to force him into making a mistake. After Nemechek bobbled off of Turn 4 heading to the white flag, Earnhardt made his move and cleared Nemechek by the time they entered Turn 1 on the final lap.
From that point on, Earnhardt was able to hold off a hard charging Elliott Sadler to score his first NASCAR win as his father looked on.
After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt, Jr. exclaimed “Daddy, I love you to death!” over the radio.
In victory lane, Earnhardt, Jr. made a declaration that the Texas win would be just the beginning, saying: “We’re going to get some more, don’t you worry about that!” Indeed, the Texas win would be just the start as Earnhardt would go on to score seven wins that season as well as the championship.
As Earnhardt graduated up to the Cup Series in 2000, it was déjà vu all over again with a slow start to the season, but everything turned around at Texas, just as it did two years prior in 1998.
However, this time around Earnhardt, Jr. was absolutely dominant throughout the race, leading 106 of the 334 laps in the race. The race was slowed by cautions on 12 different occasions, which allowed Earnhardt and his No. 8 team to take four tires on nearly every pit stop.
Despite dropping to 10th or worse after each pit stop, Earnhardt showed no mercy as he fought his way back to the lead each time. After taking the lead for the final time with 53 laps remaining, Earnhardt was able to pull away from Jeff Burton, who had won the inaugural race at the track, to score his first Cup Series win with a margin of victory of 5.920 seconds in only his 12th career start.
“On the last lap, I was so excited, and I could see the fans getting excited. I couldn’t believe it – people screaming and cheering. I couldn’t believe it,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “I’m out of breath. That was the hardest race I ever drove.”
“I’ll tell you, he’s something else,” Earnhardt, Sr. said in victory lane after congratulating his son. “He was talking about coming to Texas and winning his first Cup race. He won his first Busch race here. We knew the kid could do it. Tony Eury and all the guys worked really hard. I’ve got to thank Budweiser, Chevrolet, and everybody. This kid, he worked hard. Tony Jr., Tony Sr., Richie Gilmore and all them guys in that engine shop. Got a good race car, good engine, and the boy drove a good race.”