Victory Lane to Memory Lane

Talladega, Ala., October 2000. That’s where and when the late Dale Earnhardt chalked up what would be his final victory.

It’s still hard to believe, and it’s still worth remembering as this year’s 500 draws nearer.

In the tradition of bigger-than-life stars, Earnhardt cast a giant shadow over Winston Cup racing. And his absence during the 2002 season still casts a pall over the wildly popular sport. On that beautiful October Sunday afternoon, the seven-time series champion demonstrated once again why he was the greatest restrictor plate pilot in history, and arguably the finest stock car driver to ever wipe grease from his face.

In a miraculous finish Earnhardt took the checkered flag and proved he still had the mettle to challenge for championships. Trailing 18 cars with only five laps remaining, Earnhardt was able to create space where none was available and nudge his way to the front. Whether any other driver could’ve pulled it off is debatable.

But Earnhardt is the one who got it done. The following is his final interview following a Winston Cup victory:

“We were just fortunate enough to get hooked up with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek there and work our way to the front,” Earnhardt said after the race. “Basically how I won the race is because Kenny and Joe got in there and all three Chevrolets worked together and worked their way to the front.

“We were bump-drafting quite a bit. I came off two and worked up and down the racetrack and kept the air broke up and they couldn’t really get a run on me. I think that was the key – getting out front and not getting passed.”

With the win Earnhardt had seven victories in Winston Cup competition at Talladega Superspeedway, and 10 overall including Busch and International Race of Champions competition. In a Hall of Fame career that saw him win both Rookie of the Year and points championship honors in the same season (1979), the driver of the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet would finish with 77 career WC victories and over $40 million in earnings – more than any other driver in any form of motor sports.

Earnhardt was almost sheepish about his incredible accomplishment in that final victory.

“I don’t now how we won it honestly,” he said with that smile. “But considering how far back we were, it says a lot about how the rules and spotters and everything made the race more competitive.”

The win put Earnhardt in second place in the standings, and that’s where he would finish behind champion Bobby Labonte. But after the race, Earnhardt was still confident he could somehow, some way, break a tie with Richard Petty and win a record eighth points championship.

“You’ve got to gain every race like that, and if we can gain 50 or so every race down to the last one it’d make it a heck of a race at Atlanta,” Earnhardt said. “Charlotte was a good race for us, but we should’ve finished better there than we did. Dover was also a good race for us, but we should’ve finished better there and didn’t.

“We’ve got to start having the luck like we did today at Talladega, and capitalize on our good finishes and beat Bobby. Hopefully, Bobby finishes further back than us.”

The victory had secured Earnhardt his first No Bull 5 bonus, which paid him $1 million and paid another million to Mt. Savage, Md., truck driver Richard Sturtz, who was paired with Earnhardt in the “they win, you win” portion of the program sponsored by R.J. Reynolds.

It was the first time Earnhardt had collected the bonus since it was introduced in 1998.

“I was proud to make old Richard Sturtz a millionaire,” Earnhardt said. “He’s worked hard all his life and he deserves it. Winston is awful good about putting this together.

“I’ve been involved in a couple of No Bull 5s and never won one, it’s pretty unique to win one.”

Other Earnhardt factoids from his final victory:

He led seven times for 34 of the 188-laps raced.

He won from the 20th-place starting position, marking the fourth straight time that a race winner has started outside the top 15 at Talladega.

It was his second win and 22nd top-10 finish of the 2000 season, and his 27th top-10 finish in 44 races. Earnhardt also won the 1999 Winston 500 and won three of the last four Talladega events he competed in.

“I’ve got to hand it to the race drivers,” Earnhardt said after the Talladega win. “They all worked good together. I know there at the end they got a little antsy, a little bumping and a little bit of rubbing. I know they wrecked there at the start-finish line.

“But it was a pretty good day, and seeing that kind of side-by-side racing three and four wide at times and nobody getting in trouble made it a great day, actually. It was good, hard racing.”

Sadly, fans will never see good, hard racing by Earnhardt again. Had he lived, Earnhardt would’ve broken the consecutive starts streak set by Terry Labonte last year. Instead, there are only memories of what was and what might have been.

But as NASCAR moves forward with new stars and new champions, the 3 car driver will live on as its greatest competitor.

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