There’s plenty of numerology in the Dale Earnhardt Sr. biography. He drove No. 8 in his NASCAR debut, No. 96 in his Talladega debut. He was already 158 races into his career before he drove the No. 3 with which he’s been inexorably tied.
He had 676 NASCAR Cup starts and won 76 times. But for our purposes, we’ll go with 7 — the record for season championships he shares with Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson — for the most memorable Earnhardt races.
—1. The Last, And Maybe The Best, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct 15, 2000: Former Talladega president Grant Lynch called it “probably the most dynamic thing I ever saw done on that track” when Earnhardt advanced from 17th place with five laps to go to steal the victory in the Winston 500. It was vintage Earnhardt — from a heated pit-story strategy debate to his skill in the draft to his refusal to settle for anything but a win.
Credit Kenny Wallace’s patience and his skill, giving Earnhardt the aero push to storm through the field. It was his final victory, as 127 days later, Earnhardt was killed in the last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
—2. The First Of Many, Bristol Raceway, April 1, 1979: Earnhardt was already 28 years old when he won his first NASCAR Cup-level race. (By comparison, Joey Logano was 19, Kyle Busch 20 and Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon both 22 when they won their inaugural race.)
Driving the No. 2 Rod Osterlund, he finished three seconds ahead of Bobby Allison, and a top five that included Darrell Waltrip, Petty, Benny Parsons and Donnie Allison in the Southeastern 500.
Earnhardt’s crew chief, the colorful “Suitcase Jake” Elder, “Dale can be as good as anybody I ever worked with.”
—3. The Pass In The Grass, Charlotte Motor Speedway, May 17, 1987: It wasn’t really a pass, but the hype machine couldn’t resist the poetry. Earnhardt took advantage of a Geoff Bodine spin to grab the lead of The Winston all-star race ahead of Bill Elliott, who was in a clearly faster car.
With seven laps to go, Earnhardt was all over the track, blocking an infuriated Elliott, who tapped his rear bumper. That sent Earnhardt careening through the infield grass. Earnhardt was leading at the time — and continued to lead — so it wasn’t really a pass.
Tempers cooled years later, and Elliott acknowledged, “Most people would have probably spun out.” Earnhardt wasn’t most people.
—4. Daytona Hopes Go Flat, Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 1990: “It’s a big race and it’s eluded a lot of people,” Earnhardt was quoted in this very newspaper on the morning of the 1990 Daytona 500. The columnist dared use the word “jinx” in describing his previous fate at Daytona, which included running out of gas on the final lap in 1986.
With less than a half-lap remaining in the 1990 Daytona race, Earnhardt’s right rear tire blew. Derrike Cope, in a pink-and-white Purolator Chevy, passed the wobbling, wounded Earnhardt for his first Cup victory. “They didn’t outrun us,” Earnhardt said. “They just lucked into it.”
—5. Daytona, Finally!, Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 15, 1998: No blowout this time. Plenty of fuel. Earnhardt had already won 70 races and entered 19 Daytona 500s before the jinx was eliminated.
“I finally wrote the last chapter to this story, the 20th chapter to this long story,” said Earnhardt, who had drafting help from teammate Mike Skinner and held off Bobby Labonte until a race-ending caution. “Now I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
—6. No. 2 at Talladega Is In No. 3, Talladega Superspeedway, July 29, 1984: Earnhardt grabbed his first Talladega win in July 1983 in Bud Moore’s Wrangler Thunderbird, ending a dismal spell in which he had only won twice since the fall of 1980. But when he slipped past Terry Labonte with a slingshot move on the final lap, he secured his first victory in the Richard Childress-owned No. 3 Chevrolet.
Of all things, Earnhardt had been criticized for his conservative racing, called a “stroker” by Darrell Waltrip, an insult directed toward a driver more concerned with finishing than winning.
“How long has that guy been racing?” Earnhardt said. “Has he ever been quiet?”
—7. The Man Wins The Brickyard, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Aug. 5, 1995: Jeff Gordon-mania reached a crescendo with the 23-year-old’s victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400. When Earnhardt won the near year, he offered the ultimate put-down. “I was the first man ever to win the Brickyard 400. Wonder Boy won the first one,” he said as he made the talk-show circuit.
Earnhardt had a frantic race with longtime friend and rival Rusty Wallace, the two of them dominating the last third of the race. Seventeen times in their careers, they ran 1-2, Wallace the victor 10 times. They never finished 1-2 again.
Veteran sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.