April 18, 1999 Earnhardt Torched Competition,
Blazed New NASCAR Trail By John Close (Country.com)
"The Intimidator." Even the most casual
NASCAR fan knows that term refers to Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup champion.
A winner of 71 Winston Cup events, Earnhardt has become a part of NASCAR legend to the
legion of fans who follow "The Man In Black."
Earnhardt was born to drive a race car. The
son of early racing great Ralph Earnhardt, the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman champion, young Dale
got a first hand education around his father's Kannapolis, NC, garage. By the age of 16,
Dale Earnhardt was already driving at tracks like Metrolina and Concord Motor Speedways.
In 1975, Earnhardt made his first Winston Cup start piloting an Ed Negre owned mount in
the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He started 33rd and finished 22nd, completing
355 of the 400 circuits. Earnhardt took home a whopping $1,925 for the effort.
The inauspicious debut was hardly an indication as to what was to come. Eight starts over
the next three seasons also produced few noteworthy results. Then, in late 1978, Earnhardt
teamed up with car owner Rod Osterlund. The move, which Earnhardt credits as his biggest
break in racing, jettisoned the now 28-year-old driver into a full-time Winston Cup
opportunity for the 1979 season. Earnhardt quickly made his mark, winning the spring race
at Bristol, TN, the then titled Southeastern 500. It was his 16th career Winston Cup
start. Earnhardt would eventually notch nine Top 5 efforts in 27 starts that season, good
enough for seventh in the final point standings. It also garnered Earnhardt Winston Cup
Rookie of the Year honors.
Earnhardt went one better the following season, driving the yellow and blue #2 Osterlund
car to his first NASCAR Winston Cup title. The fete came on the strength of five wins and
19 Top 5 finishes in 31 events. It also marked the first and only time in Winston Cup
history that a driver won the rookie title one year and the championship the next. After a
winless 1981 campaign, Earnhardt headed to the Bud Moore organization, winning three
events over the next two seasons. Another team change, this one to Richard Childress
Racing, followed in 1984. The 1984 and 1985 seasons produced six total wins before the
Earnhardt/Childress partnership stuck on full throttle earning back to back Winston Cup
championships in 1986 and 1987. Earnhardt was clearly the class of the field, winning five
races in 1986 before posting a monster 1987 campaign with 11 victories in 29 starts.
Earnhardt also captured his first of three career victories in The Winston Select all-star
event at Charlotte in 1987.
During this period, Earnhardt's dominating performance and menacing attitude wreaked havoc
on the racetrack. Simply stated, if he couldn't drive around you, Earnhardt would drive
over you. While this steely determination led to more than his fair share of run-ins with
his fellow competitors, Earnhardt's bravado also captured the imagination of the fans in
the late 1980s. With top NASCAR stars Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson
winding down their illustrious careers, the fans were looking for new heroes to cheer for.
Earnhardt proved to be the best of them. In a time when the sport was beginning the nearly
vertical growth curve it still enjoys today, Earnhardt became NASCAR's biggest star.
On the track, Earnhardt continued to win races and championships in bunches, dominating
the latter part of the 1980s and the early 1990s. Titles in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994 put
Earnhardt in rarified air joining Petty as the only seven-time Winston Cup champion. His
71 wins currently puts him sixth on the all-time list heading into the 1999 season.
Included in that victory total is the 1998 Daytona 500, a race which eluded Earnhardt
until his 20th start in the event. Earnhardt's more than $33 million in career winnings
heading into this season easily tops that category.
While Earnhardt's accomplishments on the track are legendary in stature, his importance to
the sport off the racing surface can't be underestimated. Earnhardt was the first driver
to tap the corporate business side of NASCAR, merging his winning record with a top
personal marketing program. Earnhardt revolutionized the business end of the sport for
drivers, turning it into a multi-million dollar enterprise by being the first to trademark
his likeness, signature and car number. The exploding NASCAR fan base positioned Earnhardt
as the focal point of the sport. No longer a regional entity, Earnhardt led the rush to
"rock star status" for Stock car drivers.
As much as anyone who has ever participated in the sport, Earnhardt can take credit for
turning NASCAR into big business. Long the kingpin of souvenir row, Earnhardt continues to
be at or near the top in collectible item and memorabilia sales despite the fact his on
track performance has waned in recent years. No longer the biggest winner on the tour,
Earnhardt's legion of fans still regale him each and every time he rolls onto the track.
That homage is also directed toward Dale Earnhardt Jr., who from all appearances, looks to
be a chip off the old block after winning the 1998 NASCAR Busch Grand National
In many ways, Dale Earnhardt is the epitome of the American success story. Earnhardt
started out as a poor, young race car driver with little more than a legacy left him by
his father. Through hard work, determination, cunning and a total lack of fear, Earnhardt
was able to create an enviable on track record of wins and championships. Along the way,
he led the charge in transforming his sport from a backwoods, regional phenomena to one of
corporate boardrooms, private jets, luxury motorcoaches and multi-million dollar bank
accounts. The next time you attend a NASCAR Winston Cup race at one of the now gigantic
stadiums that regularly fill to capacity, take a quick look around. It's highly likely
you'll be sitting next to or near a Dale Earnhardt fan.