Dale Earnhardt: The Man and Legend Who Defined NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst INovember 13, 2009

15 Feb 1998: Dale Earnhardt celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.
David Taylor/Getty Images

Perhaps it's something that I've come to terms with as I've grown older and reflected with some of my favorite racing memories in the 18 years I've watched NASCAR.

Most of those moments are on what were, in my eyes, the "good ol' days," particularly from 1991-'99, around the time when two drivers dominated the decade that defined NASCAR.

While Jeff Gordon certainly created the brand and image of NASCAR today, bringing in an influx of young talents from all walks of racing, the driver who defined the toughness and wits of a racer who won (and won a lot) races and championships was the late Ralph "Dale" Earnhardt.

I was fortunate to catch Gordon's initiation into the sport, watching the former USAC champion transition from the typical hot shot rookie to an extraordinary record breaking racer who continues to be a factor in his "older" age of 38.

However, I think it's safe to say that I was unaware and not appreciative of the remarkable accomplishments of Earnhardt. After all, he was in his 40s by the time I started watching NASCAR, about the time when a racer was either at his peak or decline.

Naturally, as a child, I decided to root on a younger racer who could stand up to the old guard. Gordon entered the sport as a full-time competitor in 1993 and displayed some promise against the most dominant driver of stock car racing since 1986.

Now at age 24, despite Gordon still possessing his racing prowess, I think it's safe to say, like most race fans, we miss seeing that No. 3 Chevrolet on the track, myself included.

How many racers in today's NASCAR trade paint, mash in their fenders, and use up all their equipment, often ending up in Victory Lane?

Sure, we have Tony Stewart, who's naturally aggressive and cunning, not afraid to go door-to-door to reach the lead pack. He's about the most versatile driver of our generation, able to compete at a winning level in almost any vehicle out there.

Kurt and Kyle Busch are certainly talented and courageous drivers who are fearless and brash, but they are hardly the apple of any fans' eyes in the grandstands.

Earnhardt was just a unique racer whose mount would look like an absolute mess at the conclusion of almost any event.

Whether it was his blue-and-yellow Wrangler Jeans machine or the Darth Vader-like black Goodwrench machine, the man that many dubbed as "The Intimidator" was no slouch behind the wheel of his Richard Childress Racing car.

Some of my favorite memories of "The Man In Black" include moments from his last years of racing, particularly his sentimental and popular Daytona 500 victory in 1998 and of course, the August Bristol night races that nearly every stock car enthusiast still talks about to this day.

Although he was essentially an aggressive and edgy driver for virtually his entire career, fans witnessed his "Tough Customer" persona at the 500-lap August night races at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 1995 and '99. Both times, his main nemesis (or victim, depending on your stance) was "Texas" Terry Labonte.

In 1995, Earnhardt experienced something of a summer slump that saw him lose the points lead and drop to fourth in the standings, trailing points leader Gordon by 314 markers heading into the Goody's 500 at Thunder Valley.

Knowing there was not a whole lot of time to cut into his tremendous deficit with 10 races remaining, Earnhardt and the No. 3 team had to pull out all the stops in order to even have a chance at the 44-year-old's eighth driver's championship and his third consecutive title.

Qualifying seventh for the traditionally sold-out race, there was just a distinct feeling on that Aug. 26 night. For starters, the event started late due to some rain that left the track workers very little time to dry up the moist concrete and asphalt surface.

Also, night races at Bristol tend to have a mysterious, exciting aura that almost leaves drivers and fans in wonder about what kind of race that will unfold after three hours of nerve-wracking action.

Immediately, Earnhardt left his mark on his peers, initially with long-time friend (and foe) Rusty Wallace in the very early stages of the 500-lapper. Wallace's No. 2 Miller Genuine Draft Ford was hit by "The Initmidator" off corner number four, sending the '89 Cup titlist into a spin along the frontstretch.

Although his Thunderbird made relatively light contact with the wall, Wallace's shot at victory was essentially over. Anger and a damaged machine translated into an unforgettable night that involved Earnhardt and a water bottle by race's end. But that part is for later.

Even likable veteran Lake Speed was a victim of Earnhardt's wrath (or path) of destruction, with his No. 9 Spam Ford tangling with that distinct Chevrolet off turn three on lap 390.

Needless to say, Earnhardt was not making any friends that evening, but he was certainly giving the fans something to talk about in what was a memorable contest. Depending on your allegiance, the Kannapolis, NC native was not taking any prisoners with the crowd pleasers or small guys of the field.

It could be said that the final shot by of that night by Earnhardt was perhaps the most striking of all, as it unfolded on a tremendously dramatic last-lap finish.

Labonte was leading the event, with his once-lengthy interval over the No. 3 car shrinking tremendously due to lap traffic around the 0.533-mile facility. Earnhardt was cutting into the lead, eventually catching the No. 5 Kellogg's Monte Carlo on the final lap.

With very little option to perhaps "steal" a victory, Earnhardt exercised his right to mash his front fender into Labonte off the final corners. As the checkered flag flew, mayhem ensued with the No. 5 car crashing head on into the frontstretch wall after a tap from the Goodwrench machine that sent him into the No. 31 Hardee's mount piloted by Greg Sacks.

Miraculously, Labonte hung on to his Hendrick Motorsports-owned car to win the race, albeit with about the ugliest looking Chevy of the night with his hood bowed up and a front clip that needed tremendous attention and repair.

Labonte stated from the winner's circle that he would've been very upset if he was crashed out of the lead on the last lap but was OK about his wrecked machine since he won the race.

And getting back with the Wallace incident, following the race, the two friends duked it out physically. Reportedly, Wallace threw a bottle at Earnhardt during their post-race argument, incensed over an aggressive move executed so early in the race.

Four years later, Labonte was once again on the receiving end of Earnhardt's last lap tactics. On that occasion, "The Iceman" was not as cool headed about the results of that particular event.

In the 1999 edition of the Goody's 500, Labonte mounted a charge to the front after being spun late in the event by Darrell Waltrip. With four fresh tires, the No. 5 machine made a bee-line to the front, overtaking the likes of Jimmy Spencer, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, Gordon, and Stewart to find himself in position to take the win away from Earnhardt.

Making slight contact with the Goodwrench car, Labonte used the "bump-and-go" move on Earnhardt between turns three and four to take the lead with a lap remaining when you can probably guess what happened next.

It was that race in which those famous words were uttered by the seven-time Cup champion from Victory Lane following a controversial final lap.

Deciding to play fair game with Labonte on the last lap, Earnhardt tapped him out of the way between turns one and two to not only take the lead, but in the process, wrecking the Kellogg's Chevy into Stewart and Rudd out of the event.

When interviewed in Victory Lane by ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch, the grizzled veteran said, "I didn't mean to really turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage a little."

As much of an unpopular victory it was for Earnhardt on those two races at Bristol, the gritty racer had his moment of glory and completion in the Feb. 15th running of the 1998 Daytona 500.

If ever there had to be a perfect way to kickstart NASCAR's 50th season, the John Elway of stock car racing had to win the Super Bowl of stock car auto racing at the Daytona International Speedway.

Just a few weeks before the 40th running of "The Great American Race," Elway led his Denver Broncos to a dramatic victory against the defending Bowl champions in the Green Bay Packers, finally capturing that elusive ring and his throne as one of the greatest quarterbacks and players of the NFL.

Perhaps inspired by the longtime football icon's finest moment, Earnhardt was on a mission to win that elusive race title. He lost it in about any way imaginable, from a piece of debris cutting his tire down in the lead with just about a third of a lap remaining in 1990 to a fuel starved machine in the '86 running.

Resolute and determined, Earnhardt was absolute about making sure nothing would stand in his way between that No. 3 Chevy and Victory Lane. As if the racing gods decided to align everything in unison, only a few drivers really stood a chance at challenging the popular racer.

Leading 107 of the 200 laps, it was about one of the most dominant car ever driven by Earnhardt, whose Goodwrench machine was nearly unbeatable.

Contenders fell by the wayside late in the going, including Gordon, who dropped a cylinder with four laps to go, as well as Spencer, who made contact with the wall coming into the tri-oval of the frontstretch.

Even more of a blessing to Earnhardt's path to victory was a late-race spin involving John Andretti and Lake Speed, essentially ensuring a win that left any driver's fanbase in tears.

It was certainly one of the more emotional moments in NASCAR's storied history for a man who had dominated and feasted on his competition. Despite his dark persona as a tough customer and veteran, fans witnessed a human side to "The Man in Black."

Every member of his competitor's pit crew lined up on pit road to congratulate and hand salute their fellow driver on arguably his greatest moment as a racer, capturing the whale that Captain Ahab came painstakingly close to capturing on those wild seas.

Even though it was a moment from 11 years ago, it is one of the most poignant pictures and videos of a fan's memories. Earnhardt also flung his Chevy on the frontstretch grass, doing a bit of agricultural burnout action before he entered the hallowed grounds of the winner's circle to hoist that trophy that he had finally earned after 19 attempts.

Perhaps even equally as memorable was when Earnhardt, interviewed by CBS Sports' Ken Squier, exclaimed to the millions of fans at home that, "We won it, we won it, we won it!"

To me, it was the moment in which, even as a young fan at that time, I felt a tremendous amount of respect for a legend who is truly missed in today's world of NASCAR. It says a lot to have your competitors congratulate you one-by-one and let you soak in such a victorious moment that still gets discussed today.

Memories never fade away, although the racing world lost the legend himself in 2001 at the same facility he experienced many of his greatest moments.

Eight years later, the NASCAR world is still remembering Dale Earnhardt, whose legacy and place in racing history will never be forgotten by any motorsports fan across the world.

With son Dale Junior competing with the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevy and the teams he raced with still going at it after all these years, there's no mistake that Earnhardt's name and presence will always be felt despite the passage of time.

And for nearly 25 years, we were treated and entertained by a man who gave all behind the wheel of those tough stock cars at America's finest facilities.

Thanks, Dale.