Racing beat

| November 01, 2007

Dale Earnhardt picked up $1 million and continued his reign at Talladega with a victory in the 2000 Winston 500. Tragically, it would be Earnhardt’s final win.

Ralph Earnhardt was an aggressive stock car driver and a man’s man, but he was also a father who was idolized by his son. Dale Earnhardt, who grew up in Kannapolis, N.C., was only 5 years old when his papa won the NASCAR Sportsman championship, and it would be a while before Dale began following in his father’s footsteps.

At age 22, Dale was a working man while his dad was a racer. With only a 9th grade education, the younger Earnhardt made ends meet in a textile factory.

That same year – 1973 – Ralph was tinkering with his car when he died of heart failure.

Suddenly, the patriarch of the Earnhardt clan was gone, and it was up to Dale to carry the torch.

A ham-and-egg driver while trying to feed his family with a full-time job, Dale Earnhardt was determined to break into the sport he and his father loved – and succeed.

In 1975 Earnhardt drove one race for owner Ed Negre, winning a grand total of $1,925. The next season he was in two Cup events, and 1977 was one-and-out for Earnhardt, who failed to finish the only race he started.

In 1978 Earnhardt was on the track five times – the first four for Will Conkrite and the fifth for Rod Osterland. It was that last race – one that saw Earnhardt finish fourth – that got the attention of Osterland. The car owner was so impressed with the confident young man that he offered the twice-divorced father of three a chance to compete in a full slate of Cup racing in 1979.

Needless to say, Earnhardt made the most of his opportunity.

Suiting up for 27 of the circuit’s events, he picked up his first career win at Bristol and had one second-place spot, three thirds, four fourth-place spots and two fifths.

When the season was done, Ralph’s boy had brought home $264,086 and won NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors.

One season later Earnhardt found himself in victory lane often and won the first of his record-tying seven Cup crowns. A season-ending paycheck of nearly $600,000 had Earnhardt in high cotton, and the brash driver from the backwoods of the Carolinas had become the newest star on the circuit.

But stardom came with a price. In his early days, Earnhardt was hardly a fan favorite and made several enemies on the track. He was unafraid to swap paint with legends of the sport, like Richard Petty and David Pearson, and “love taps” became one of the tricks of his trade.

While Osterland gave him his big break, it was the tandem of Earnhardt and Richard Childress that – starting in 1981 – would result in the most dominant force in the modern era of Winston Cup.

Childress, a former driver himself, was a kindred spirit. The two became close friends, and whatever Earnhardt needed to be competitive, Childress provided.

Their first Cup title together came in 1986, and they won another one in 1987.

Earnhardt was on top of the stock car world again in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994. At the age of 43, Dale Earnhardt had won as many points titles as Petty.

In 1995 Earnhardt won five races but finished second in the points standings. He won two in 1996, and went winless for the first time in 16 seasons in 1997.

In 1998 he took just one checker, but it came in The Great American Race, marking the first time Earnhardt had ever won the season-opening Daytona 500.

In 1999 Talladega Superspeedway was the venue that saw Earnhardt get back on track, and by the end of the 2000 season Earnhardt was poised to regain his status as the best in the business.

After winning the 2000 Winston 500, Earnhardt had 76 victories and went on to finish second behind Bobby Labonte for the Winston Cup title.

Earnhardt, 49, was running third on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001.

Tragically, it was a lap he would never complete.

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