There was a million-dollar windfall for a fan, barely an empty seat in the place, 11 future NASCAR Hall of Famers in the field — and Dale Earnhardt electrifying the place as he’d never done. It also had this very un-Talladega-like footnote: Only one car failed to finish because of a wreck.
It was October 15, 2000, and it was the occasion of Dale Earnhardt’s last 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway, as The Intimidator charged from 18th place with five laps remaining. It would be the last win of his career.
“I don’t know how I won it, honestly,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. Here’s an oral history of how he did it, from interviews conducted by Anniston Star special contributor Mark McCarter and other sources.
The Winston 500 included a gimmick — the No Bull 5 million-dollar bonus that would go to an eligible driver and a fan whose name was randomly assigned to that driver. A clay shooting competition at Sellwood Farms among five drivers determined the pairing.
Kenny Bruce, long-time journalist: Earnhardt’s this big outdoorsman and everybody thought he was going to do really great. And he actually got outshot by almost all of the other drivers. … The reason he didn't do as well was because he wouldn't put his glasses on. He did not want people to see him wearing glasses.
Richard Sturtz, the fan paired with Earnhardt, to The Baltimore Sun: If I get to meet Dale Earnhardt, it will make my day. Even if I don't win any money, meeting him will be worth the trip.
After speeds reached the 200 mph mark, NASCAR officials announced after the final practice Saturday they’d use a different restrictor plate, a move that wasn’t popular with everyone.
Mike Skinner, driver, No. 31 Chevrolet: I remember once when they made (a rule change) and I went to the NASCAR hauler and sat with (then-NASCAR president) Mike Helton and said, ”Man, what the heck are you guys doing?” He got up and got in my face and I could basically tell what he had for lunch that day. He said, “Skinner, here’s the deal. We’ve been here a long time. Drivers like you, they come and go. My job is to make sure NASCAR is still here 50 years from now.” I said, “Yes, sir. Have a good day,” and I walked out.
Joe Nemechek, driver, No. 33 Chevrolet: I wish (Earnhardt) was still here because our sport would be a different sport right now. He was one that could influence a little bit on some of the rules they made.
Dale Earnhardt, post-race interview: I still don’t like restrictor plate racing. I’m not that good at it.
Campers had to bundle up Saturday night as temperatures dipped into the 40s, but Sunday brought glorious weather, reaching 80 degrees. Nemechek started from the pole. Earnhardt qualified 20th, but a majority of the announced crowd of 170,000 had their eyes on him.
Alabama State Rep. Rex Reynolds, a finalist for NASCAR’s Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award in 2018: When I went to other tracks because of that award, time after time, when people found out I was from Alabama, the next thing out of their mouth was Earnhardt and the experience they had with him there.
Grant Lynch, former chairman, Talladega Superspeedway: If you went through the campgrounds and went through the grandstands, you knew it was Earnhardt Country.
Bruce: There wasn’t any track where he was a bigger attraction than at Talladega. I don't know why that was, but they took him in as one of their own.
Typical of Talladega, Nemechek wasn’t even leading at the end of lap one. There would be 49 lead changes among 21 drivers — even 59-year-old Dave Marcis took his turn out front in lap 2 — perhaps a result of the rule changes.
Earnhardt: The rules … made the race more competitive.
Rusty Wallace, driver, No. 2 Ford (post-race interview): It was horrible for the drivers but we knew it was great for the fans. It’s a two-sided sword. I’m upset that we’ve got to work that hard to put a show on (but) when you hit the wall at 200 (mph), it’s tough.
Nemechek: Those races were crazy, but I loved it. I mean, it was just a big high-stakes game of chess.
Bobby Labonte, driver No. 18 Pontiac (post-race interview): It’s mentally demanding. I’ve never played chess, but I’m sure it would be like that.
Mark Martin, driver, No. 6 Ford (post-race interview): That wasn’t racing.
The real racing started when Martin headed to the pits on lap 168 and was struck by Bobby Hamilton.
Martin: I was getting ready to pit and somebody didn’t know it.
Everyone pitted during the caution period that lasted until lap 173. Kenny Wallace’s team had a poor pit stop when he locked up the brakes. So did another team.
Kenny Wallace, driver No. 55 Chevrolet: We dropped the jack and I take off really fast, and I think I’m beat. Then I look in the mirror and there’s Earnhardt behind me. They had a bad stop. In my mind, to this day, I can look in the mirror and see Earnhardt’s face in those bubble goggles.
Richard Childress, owner of Earnhardt’s car: (Dale) and I were going back and forth, pit or not. And he said “Give me four tires and I’ll win this race.”
Kenny Wallace: If we don't have that (bad) pit stop, most likely we don't have one of the biggest comebacks in recent history, as it turned out to be. Bill Elliott sat me down at Daytona once and he said, “Human life and racing is all about timing and circumstance.” Special things happen, and nothing goes perfect.
Skinner: We had the best car all day, just a dominant car. We led a lot of the race and really had it covered. But it was a perfect storm for (Earnhardt). Our car was really, really good and I knew that something really weird was going to have to happen.
Earnhardt was deep in the pack for the first few laps after the restart and was 18th with five to go. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading on lap 184 (of 188), but there was wild racing going on behind him.
Jeff Gordon, driver, No. 24 Chevrolet (post-race interview): I’d say those last 15 laps were the most horrifying and most exciting I’ve ever run in my life. I put the 24 car in spots I’ve never put it before.
Earnhardt: I kept working outside, working inside, working the middle…
Benny Parsons, on ESPN TV: If he’s going to pass him on the inside, he does it on the grass … He’s on the grass. He really was on the grass, folks.
Earnhardt: (I) finally saw the middle was the place to go.
Danny Lawrence, Earnhardt’s engine builder (on nascar.com): He was telling us on the radio, “We got this, we got this.” … I'm not going to say I doubted him because he did some miraculous things, but we weren't where any of us thought we needed to be. But he felt real confident with it.
Bruce: I don't think anybody else could have done that. I really don’t.
Reynolds: I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, he’s going to do whatever he can to win the race."
Gordon: It was a crapshoot out there and Earnhardt’s as good as anybody when it comes to that.
Lynch: As he was knocking people off and going forward, it just started to crescendo, just started and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then finally, once he took the lead, it was just it was just mind boggling.
Reynolds: We were in the bleachers on the far end of the frontstretch, and everybody was standing up. I don’t think anybody left. That place went crazy.
Bruce: I remember sitting up there in the press box and you could hear the fans would just start screaming, and you're like, “OK, Earnhardt must be doing something.” And you'd look out on the track. And sure enough, you know, he would be.
Sturtz: I never lost the faith. I’ve been with him for the last two weeks … he told me we’d bring home the money.
Having Wallace running closely behind provided an aerodynamic push, and as everyone recognized, Earnhardt was a master of the draft at Talladega.
Wallace: He really felt like he couldn't have done that without me and that, you know, he is vice versa.
Nemechek: He paid attention to that aero stuff and once he started experiencing it, he figured out how to capitalize on it. Dale was mastering it in his head what he needed to do and win.
Bruce: Maybe he wanted people to think he wasn't that crazy about it. But I think he knew that he understood it better than a lot of other people did.
Skinner: Everything went just like it should have (for me), except for (Earnhardt) Junior kind of made kind of a bonehead move, in my opinion, down on the bottom with a couple laps to go. And that just set Dale up and we got clobbered.
Ricky Rudd, driver, No. 28 Ford (post-race interview): What really hurt was Earnhardt Jr. (He) drove down on the flat down there, came back on the race track and just about wrecked the whole field.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet (post-race interview): I got a run on Skinner and went to pass him. The only place to go was on the apron so I hit the apron … I got loose and had to back off. The decision was my choice. and I’m fine with it.
By the start of the final lap, Dale Senior was in the lead.
Jerry Punch, on ESPN: The Intimidator is scraped on the right side, but he will not be denied.
Lynch: It still is just probably just the most dynamic thing I ever saw done on that track.
Earnhardt: It was wild. I didn’t have any thought that I’d have a chance to win this race starting where we started on the restart. Kenny Wallace really worked hard with us. I don’t think we’d have gotten back up there if it wasn’t for Kenny … To think anybody could come from where we came from in the field is beyond me.
Dale Earnhardt Jr: He knows how to win here more than anyone else.
Skinner: Richard Childress and I are still very, very good friends. And we were sitting on my patio two years ago and talking about all the ones that got away. And that one there probably sticks out in his mind as much as any of them.
Kenny Wallace: I was just caught off guard (that he) gave me so much attention. Earnhardt was just telling everybody in Alabama and everybody in the United States, (when they asked) “Dale, how did you do it?” And it was quote unquote, Kenny Wallace. They’re playing it over all the speakers, “If it weren't for Kenny Wallace, I would have never done this.”
Wallace and Earnhardt were among the drivers who remained in the Talladega motorhome lot that night, because they had a test the following morning.
Kenny Wallace: He made me a drink, I guess you’d call it a screwdriver, and we sat in his motorhome. … Then a couple of days later, he sees me again (on the set of an ESPN show) and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “Herman, what do I owe you?” Because, you know, he won a million dollars.
Bruce: He won two races that year but he finished second in points to Bobby Labonte. And (in 2001) it was like, OK, he’s going to come back and win the championship. He’s not washed up. But we never got to see that.
Kenny Wallace: It was a big win and it was exciting, right? But it wasn’t until he died so tragically and we all reflected and we’re like, holy crap, clearly one of the most exciting wins of his life was the last one.
Veteran sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.