The right man at the right place, the late Dale Earnhardt helped energize a base of millions of hardscrabble, disenfranchised blue-collar fans, and at the same time catapult NASCAR from a regional novelty to a national phenomenon, one unlikely to be equaled or surpassed.
“He was a person in time at a point in time that we'll never see again,” says Roger Penske, a man who knows a thing or two about champions. “Jimmie Johnson won five championships, but he would say himself that the notoriety that Earnhardt had and what he did for the sport helped get Jimmie on the platform. All these drivers, they can thank Earnhardt, because he's the one who built that stage for them to perform.”
Following are some of the moments of Earnhardt's career that helped both define him and explain who he was.
VIVA LAS VEGAS? NO THANK YOU!
After he won his first Sprint Cup title in 1980, Earnhardt and and brothers Randy and Donny flew to Las Vegas to celebrate. Earnhardt's three-bedroom suite at Circus-Circus featured an elevated bed, piano and lavish chandeliers. It took just 18 hours for Earnhardt to eschew the luxury and excess of Sin City and head back to Carolina, where he felt more comfortable.
“All these lights and glitz ain't me,” Earnhardt told Charlotte Observer beat reporter Tom Higgins. “I'm going home. At this time tomorrow morning, I'll be in the top of a tree in Chester County in South Carolina, deer hunting.”
BACK WITH CHILDRESS
Earnhardt drove briefly for Richard Childress Racing in 1981, when he replaced the car owner for 11 starts. But Childress told Earnhardt he lacked the funding for consistently front-running equipment. So, in 1982 and '83, Earnhardt drove a Ford for Bud Moore, winning just three races in those two seasons.
Childress convinced sponsor Wrangler to move to RCR, where Earnhardt would return as driver. In 1984, Earnhardt won twice, doubling that total the following year. And starting in 1986, Earnhardt and Childress would win six championships in nine seasons, cementing their friendship and their place in history.
As much as Earnhardt was adored by millions of fans, his competitive nature made him hated by fans of other drivers and sometimes the drivers, too. Nowhere was that more evident than at Richmond International Raceway in February 1986, when Dale and three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Darrell Waltrip wrecked each other while leading in the closing laps, allowing Kyle Petty to win.
“I was on top and Dale wanted to be on top,” says Waltrip. “I had everything Dale wanted and Dale was going to take it away from me. Once he started to have some success, it started to turn, at times, real ugly.”
It was here where Earnhardt cemented his reputation as “The Intimidator.”
THE PASS IN THE GRASS
Ironically, there was no pass at all in “the pass in the grass” moment in the 1987 Sprint All-Star Race. Earnhardt made a wicked save on the frontstretch infield, all the while holding off the onrushing Ford Thunderbird of Bill Elliott, who had nearly turned him sideways. Dale's aggressive driving later put leader Elliott into the wall, while Earnhardt won, sparking a pit-road confrontation between the crews of the two teams.
“If a man has to run over you to beat you, it's time to stop,” said Elliott. “I'm sick of it. Time and time again. If that's what it takes to be a Winston Cup champion, I don't want it.”