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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

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 championship.

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.

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redarrow.gif (62 bytes)Earnhardt fans, check out That's Racin's new wallpapers

redarrow.gif (62 bytes)The Life and Times of the "Intimidator"

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