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.”
NEIL BONNETT'S DEATH
Bonnett and Earnhardt were close friends and hunting buddies. Neil had survived severe crashes at Charlotte in 1987 and Darlington in 1990 and retired from racing to serve as a TV commentator, but planned a five-race farewell tour in 1994. He crashed in Turn 4 during practice at Daytona in Feb. '94 and was killed instantly.
Not only did Earnhardt grieve, it affected his outlook on safety. Earnhardt refused to wear a closed-face helmet, because he incorrectly believed Bonnett's closed-face helmet served as a fulcrum that broke the driver's neck on impact.
PLAYING WITH PAIN
A week before the 1996 Brickyard 400, defending event winner Earnhardt suffered a terrifying high-speed rollover crash at Talladega, braking his sternum and collarbone. Earnhardt started the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, only to be relieved during the first caution period by Mike Skinner.
Earnhardt climbed out of the car, waved off pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, who was seeking a comment. Then he composed himself and, choking back emotions, told Punch, “Dadgum it, it's hard to get out of there, Jerry. You know, it's my life right here.”
A year later at Daytona, Earnhardt endured another rollover crash, this one in the closing laps of the Daytona 500. As he sat in the ambulance waiting to go to the infield care center, he suddenly jumped up and yelled, “Hey, the wheels are still on that thing!” With that, he bolted from the ambulance, got back in his car and somehow finished the race.
1998 DAYTONA 500
At Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt had enjoyed both tremendous success and heatbreaking failure. He won more races at DIS than any other driver but, until 1998, had never won the 500. He'd run out of gas, lost a tire on the last lap, crashed, been passed and lost the race in just about every way possible.
It all came good in '98, when Dale ended two decades of frustration with an emotional victory. What made it remarkable was that, as Earnhardt pulled the black No. 3 Chevy down pit road, crew members from virtually every team walked out of their pit stalls to form a receiving line of crew chiefs and crew members. It was a stunning sight.
2000 SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE
Earnhardt formed his own race team in 1996. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the 2000 Sprint All-Star Race as a rookie driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and says that race was nearly as big to his father as the Daytona 500 victory was.
“That win still is the favorite moment of my career – being in Victory Lane with my dad,” says Jr. “The wins
I'd had before, he'd come in, shake everybody's hand and take off. That was the only Victory Lane that he stood in the entire time, for the whole half-hour or 45 minutes we were there. He was talking to his brother, Danny, and the guys on the team.
“He was really enjoying not only the father-son relationship, but I think also the fact that he had built a team that was the winner of the All-Star race.
“That was a race and a format that Dad really admired. It meant the most to him,” Earnhardt Jr. continues. “It was right up there with winning the 500. I think winning it as a car owner was something he never really imagined, so that was pretty cool to see him enjoy that moment that night.”
THE FINAL VICTORY
The scene was Talladega Superspeedway, and the date was Oct. 15, 2000. With four laps to go, Earnhardt was buried way back in 18th place, having just bounced off of Rich Bickle's car and seemingly trapped in a sea of racecars on all four sides of him, surrounding the black No. 3.
But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Earnhardt charged forward, parting the field like Moses parting the Red Sea, and with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek behind him, Earnhardt charged forward. He crossed the line the winner, claiming the $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus money in addition to his race earnings.
It was a display of shock and awe perhaps never equaled in a Cup race, one that left the fans dazed and delighted in their disbelief. The noise from the grandstands was deafening as Earnhardt crossed the start-finish line.
2001 DAYTONA 500
The final lap of the Daytona 500 was something no one would believe if it were a movie script: Last lap. Michael Waltrip, who is 0-462 in career Sprint Cup starts, leads in a DEI Chevrolet. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second, with Dale Earnhardt Sr. third. Just as Waltrip gets ready to take the checkered flag. Earnhardt gets loose in Turn 4, is tapped by Sterling Marlin, slides up the hill, where he's hit by Ken Schrader and then slams into the outside wall, perishing in the crash.
Yet in death, Earnhardt's legend and influence continue to grow, even as the likelihood of anyone ever really replacing him in the garage diminishes with each passing year.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.