In the Rearview Mirror: Dale Earnhardt

This is the inaugural edition of my new column, In the Rearview Mirror. In this column each week I will be taking a look back at what has made NASCAR what it is today. The people, races and events that have built NASCAR may not be fresh in your memory, but should not be forgotten.

Donald Miralle /Allsport - Getty Images
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Sr. had racing in his blood from the time he was born. Dale was born to parents Ralph and Martha on April 29, 1951. His father Ralph was a short-track racer, well known on the circuit in their home of North Carolina. Unlike most fathers, Ralph did not want young Dale to follow in his footsteps. Dale would not be held back from his passion, dropping out of school to pursue racing when he was 16 years old.

Dale married his first wife, Latane, and together they welcomed their first child. Their son, whom they named Kerry, was welcomed in December 1969. Latane and Dale divorced soon after. Dale than married Brenda Gee, who then welcomed two more children. Daughter Kelley and namesake Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. were born in 1972 and 1974 respectively. Brenda and Dale later divorced in 1977. Dale then met Teresa; they married and welcome daughter Taylor in 1988.

Early Career

Dale first started the Winston Cup series (which is now our Sprint Cup) in 1975 by running the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Finishing 22nd, Dale placed right in front of Richard Childress, who would later become his car owner.

Earnhardt made his full-time series debut in 1979, driving for Rod Osterlund Racing. He won his first race that year, the Southeastern 500 at Bristol. Dale went on to win the Rookie of the Year title, finishing the year with 11 top-5 finishes and 17 top 10 finishes. In the overall standings, Dale finished seventh, despite the fact he missed four races with a broken collarbone.

In 1980, Earnhardt’s second full year, he was teamed up with crew chief Doug Richert and the duo proved to be a successful one. Dale won five times, had 19 top-5 and 24 top-10 finishes. Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup championship this year, beating Cale Yarborough by 19 points. To this day, Dale Earnhardt is the only driver to win the Rookie of the Year and Cup title in consecutive years.

After Osterlund sold his race team in the middle of the 1981 season, Dale than joined Bud Moore Racing but only spent a short time there.

Richard Childress Racing

Dale and the iconic number 3 car came together in 1984 when he joined Richard Childress Racing full time. Two years into their partnership, Earnhardt brought home the championship once again, and handed Childress his first owner’s championship.

Dale went onto win the Winston Cup again in 1987, bringing home his third Winston Cup Championship. The season was pretty much domination on his part: 11 wins, four of these being consecutive and also winning five of the first seven races that season. One particular win had its share of controversy. The Winston (All Star Race) was a battle between Dale and Bill Elliott. Elliott was leading the race into the final 10 laps. With seven laps to go, Earnhardt led Elliott, who got his nose under Dale trying to make a move. Dale swerved to block, went into the infield, never losing control on his car. Dale drove back onto the track in front of Bill and went on to win the race. This style of driving was also how he earned his iconic nickname, the Intimidator. Earnhardt finished the season 489 points ahead of his rival, Bill Elliott.

Dale won two more consecutive Winston Cup titles in 1990 and 1991. Again in 1993 and 1994, Dale won the Cup titles and tied Richard Petty for 7 championships, the most of any driver.
Bill Hall /Getty Images
The moment the fans had been waiting for finally came in 1998. Dale Earnhardt won the illusive Daytona 500! Dale led 107 of the total 200 laps, and for a restrictor plate race it was a clean race, only three cautions in all. The caution is what played into the hands of Dale that day; on lap 198 a wreck in the back brought out a caution. With Earnhardt in the lead, the race finished under a caution flag and Dale finally got the victory he had been waiting for. The most remarkable part of the victory was the respect he garnered from all the other crews: they all lined up on pit road to congratulate the Intimidator.

Up until the end of his career, Dale was winning races. Two of his most exciting wins came in his last full season, Atlanta and Talladega. In the Atlanta race, Dale narrowly beat Bobby Labonte, a difference of .006 seconds. Talladega, a restrictor plate track, was where Earnhardt always showed his prowess. In the final four laps of the race, Dale made up 17 positions to clench the win and also a million-dollar bonus check. This race would be Earnhardt’s last visit to victory lane.

Dale Earnhardt. Inc.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. was formed by Dale and wife Teresa in 1980. DEI first made its on-track debut in 1996, with a car driven by Robby Gordon.

DEI is probably most known for the cars driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr (#8) and Michael Waltrip (15). Waltrip won the Daytona 500, followed by teammate Dale Jr., but sadly their success would turn to grief.

Dale Earnhardt tragically was killed during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His death led to many new innovations in the driver safety that we now see used today. The HANS device in particular was once an option, but now it is a mandated requirement. The other significant development, the SAFER barrier, is an energy reducing padding built in at the wall of the race track. The loss of Dale was a very tragic accident, but one NASCAR as a sport has learned from and made significant advances toward driver safety, and as fans we should be thankful.
In the Rearview Mirror: Dale Earnhardt In the Rearview Mirror: Dale Earnhardt Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 Rating: 5