Top 11 Emotional NASCAR Wins in the Last 20 Years.
I have been a NASCAR fan for close to 20 years.
My family was full of race fans, starting with my grandpa. He became a race fan after attending a Bristol race with some friends in April 1979. A rookie named Dale Earnhardt won the race.
From then on my entire family was Earnhardt diehards. I was the one who ventured out away from Earhardt. I became an Alan Kulwicki fan. After his death, I started pulling for Bobby Labonte. Now I pull for Labonte, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray.
One thing that I have loved to see is a driver that will show emotion, good or bad, excited or disappointed, or a mixture of emotions after a win.
Here are the emotional victories that stand out for me, in no particular order.
Michael Waltrip 1993—Bristol Busch Series
Just after the plane crash that claimed the life of 1992 Winston Cup Series Champion Alan Kulwicki, the NASCAR Busch series took to the track at Bristol.
Michael Waltrip was still winless in the Winston Cup Series and rumors of his job security were all over the news. Driving his Yellow No. 30 Pennzoil Pontiac for BaHari racing, Waltrip took to the track for the Bud 250.
It was a typical Bristol race, bent sheet metal, and tempers flaring. At the end Michael silenced his critics by taking the checkered flag.
Before driving to victory lane Michael paid tribute to his fallen friend by taking a “Polish Victory Lap,” a post race celebration that Alan did upon winning his first NASCAR race and the 1992 Winston Cup title.
In victory lane Michael was a rainbow of emotion, in tears one minute, Michael spoke of the battle he had with Kulwicki for the 1986 Winston Cup Rookie-Of-The-Year title. Moments later he was crying tears of joy after his girlfriend, “Buffy,” accepted his marriage proposal.
Waltrip drove for BaHari racing for 2 more full seasons. That illusive Winston cup win finally came after more than 460 starts in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Ernie Irvan Martinsville—Winston Cup
This was a special race for me personally.
I was sitting in the old backstretch grandstands at the Virginia half mile. Ernie Irvan Martinsville had taken over for the late Davey Allison in September at Darlington. In his first outing with Robert Yates racing Ernie qualified 10th and ran upfront all before coming back from a late race spin to finish 5th. The next two races saw Ernie start in the front row but finish well back in the pack.
The storybook weekend at Martinsville began during qualifying when Ernie put his Black No. 28 Havoline Ford on the pole.
Geoff Bodine added to the special event by putting his No. 7 Family Channel Ford on the outside pole. The No. 7 Ford was owned and driven by Alan Kulwicki until his death in April 1993.
Neither Ernie nor Davey, or any other Allison for that matter had ever won on the paperclip. This day, nothing was going to stop the 28 team. Ernie won convincingly. He was barely able to speak in the winner’s circle. Just a few weeks later Ernie won at Charlotte in what I still consider to be the most dominate performance I’ve ever seen.
Dale Earnhardt 1993—Pocono Winston Cup
Just five days after the passing of Davey Allison, the Winston Cup Series made its way to the beautiful Pocono Mountains for the running of the Miller 500.
Ken Schrader dominated qualifying in 1993 winning the Busch pole award six times including the Miller 500. Dale Earnhardt started 11th in the black No. 3. He wasted little time getting to the front where he spent most of the day, picking up the five bonus points for leading the most laps.
Dale held off Rust Wallace for the win. After taking the checked flag and taking a victory lap holding a flag with Davey Allison’s No. 28 on it, Dale stopped on the front stretch of the 2.5 mile triangle. His pit crew led by the team’s spiritual leader David Smith joined Dale in a prayer for Davey and the entire Allison family. Earnhardt, who most would have considered a man’s man, was still overcome with emotion in victory lane.
After the season ending Hooters 500, Dale paid tribute once again. Dale captured his 6th series title that day, while Rusty Wallace took his 10th win of the season.
Together the two men that had battled for the Cup title all year took a Polish victory lap around the Atlanta Motor Speedway to honor the passing of Kulwicki and Allison. Earnhardt flew a No. 7 flag to honor the defending Champion, Kulwick, while race winner Wallace flew a No. 28 flag in memory of Allison.
Jeff Gordon 1994—Charlotte Winston Cup
I first remember hearing about Jeff Gordon in early 1991. He was driving for Bill Davis in the Busch series. In late 1992, Hendrick hired the young gun away from the Ford brigade. 1993 saw Gordon set the NASCAR world on fire. He easily won Rookie of The Year defeating Bobby Labonte and Kenny Wallace in what many have called the greatest rookie class of all time.
A win was the one thing that eluded Gordon. He had won the pole for the fall race at Charlotte, scored a pair of second place finishes at Michigan and in the seasons longest race, The Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Jeff grew up racing sprint cars in the Midwest and dreaming of winning the Indy 500. After attending a stock-car driving school Jeff switched to NASCAR stock cars.
Gordon’s first Winston Cup Series win would come on Memorial Day weekend. Gordon started his dream weekend by putting his rainbow colored No. 24 Chevy on the pole for the second straight time at the 1.5 mile tri-oval. Gordon didn’t have the best car that day, the No. 2 Ford of Rusty Wallace held that distinction.
Pit strategy from crew chief Ray Everenham was the difference. During green flag pit stops late in the going, Ray called for a two-tire stop, getting Gordon back on track with the lead. Jeff held on to win by 3.91 seconds over the 1990 Coca-Cola 600 winner, Wallace. Tears were flowing while champagne was being sprayed. The young driver was so overcome with emotion that a victory lane interview became impossible. To this day this is still the most memorable first time winner interview for me.
Steve Park Rockingham 2001—Winston Cup
18 February 2001 was perhaps the darkest day in NASCAR history.
Dale Earnhardt became mortal, suffering life-ending injuries on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Less than a week later the Series made their first of two stop at the one-mile North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham North Carolina.
Fittingly rain delayed the 400-mile race until Monday. On that day rookie Kevin Harvick made his Winston Cup Series debut, replacing Earnhardt in the newly numbered No. 29 Chevy.
Kevin qualified the white machine back in the pack but drove a good race ending up in the 14th spot at the finish.
The last few laps came down to a duel between 2000 Winston Cup champion and defending race winner Bobby Labonte and the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet driver Steve Park.
The No. 1 team was owned by Dale Earnhardt, Dale himself picked Steve to drive for his new team in 1998. Steve had scored his first Cup Series win 8 months earlier on the road course at Watkins Glen N.Y. On this day Steve delivered the victory that all NASCAR fans needed, holding off a last lap charge from the Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac.
Steve took a "Polish victory lap" which had become a common tribute to fallen drivers. As Steve entered turn 4, he got a high-five from teammate Michael Waltrip, who had won the Dayton 500 on the day Earnhardt passed away. As to be expected, Park was overcome with emotion in the winner’s circle.
Holding a Dale Earnhardt banner that the track had given away to all fans, and wearing a No. 3 tribute hat, Steve did Dale and all NASCAR fans proud that day. Sadly this would be the last Cup Series win for Park, who was seriously injured at Darlington later that year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2001—Daytona Winston Cup
This may be the most popular win in motorsports history.
Five months after the passing of Dale Earnhardt, all NASCAR drivers and fans wondered what would happen when the series returned to the famed 2.5-mile superspeedway. What happened might have been the most special night in NASCAR history.
The son of the 7-time champion started a lucky 13th on the grid. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasted no time in getting to the front and staying there. Junior dominated this race in every way, but did have to mount a late comeback after some teams used different strategy late in the going.
The white and red No. 8 crossed the finish line .123 seconds ahead of his DEI teammate Michael Waltrip. The two drove into the infield grass on the front stretch where both drivers climbed from their cars to the roar of the crowd.
What I always thought made this moment great was the fact that finally after 5 months Michael Waltrip got to finish his celebration for winning the Daytona 500 in February of 2001, the race where Dale Earnhardt Sr. lost his life.
Kevin Harvick 2001—Atlanta Winston Cup
Just three short weeks after the passing of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, the Winston Cup Tour made its way to Atlanta, GA for the Cracker Barrel 500.
With Earnhardt’s passing still fresh on everyone mind, a young rookie came of age.
Kevin Harvick was tapped by Richard Childress to replace the legend in the Goodwrench Chevrolet. Harvick started his third career race in the cup series from the 5th spot, his best starting spot at that point. He had already turned heads by scoring finishes of 14th and 8th in his first two starts. This was easily one of the most competitive races of the young season.
The last 10 pals featured a spirited battle between Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Jerry Nadeau and Harvick. Kevin made a daring 3 wide pass to take the lead with just a couple of laps remaining.
On the last lap Gordon made a charge to the inside—very reminiscent of the move Bobby Labonte had made a year earlier, coming up short against Dale Earnhardt Senior. Gordon would also come up inches short, as Harvick became the first driver in NASCAR’s modern era to win a race that quickly.
One memory of that day that still stands out is the emotion coming from Danny "Chocolate" Myers, longtime gasman for the RCR team. I still get chills just thinking about this one.
Jimmie Johnson Atlanta 2004—Nextel Cup
On 24 October 2004, an airplane owned by Rick Hendrick crashed in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Martinsville Speedway. The plane was on route to Martinsville where Jimmie Johnson, driver for Hendrick Motorsports was well on his way to winning the Subway 500, his second of three consecutive victories.
The third win of that streak happened a week later in the MBNA Bass Pro Shops 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. After starting 8th, Johnson proved too much for the field winning by .293 seconds over Mark Martin.
That day belonged not just to Johnson, but the entire Hendricks Motorsports team.
The celebration after the win was a team celebration. Teammates Brian Vickers, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon joined Johnson in paying tribute to the late Ricky Hendrick, son of Rick Hendrick, as well as the other loved ones killed in the crash.
Three weeks later Jimmie came up only 8 points short of his first Cup title. As we all know, he has done very well since, even winning four titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dover 2001—Winston Cup
On 11 September 2001, the world would change forever.
NASCAR, along with most other sports, decided to take a week off to mourn the attack on the United States.
When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series made their way to Dover Delaware for the running of the Cal Ripken Jr. 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his sights set on his second win of the season.
Many cars had American Flags in place of sponsor’s logos on their hoods. One car, the No. 36, driven by Ken Schrader, had his entire car painted like an American flag.
On this day, NASCAR’s most popular driver didn’t disappoint, scoring the win by 1.5 seconds over Jerry Nadeau. After the race was complete Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a slow victory lap holding a giant American flag out the window to the delight of the crowd on hand and watching around the world.
Jamie McMurray 2010—Daytona 500
When the 2009 season neared its halfway mark, Roush-Fenway driver, Jamie McMurray was told that he was being let go at the end of the season as Jack Roush was forced to eliminate one team.
Later in the year McMurray scored his third career win, taking the checked flag at Talladega. Soon after it was announced that Jamie was returning to Earhardt-Gannassi Racing to drive the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, replacing Martin Truex Jr.
In the final laps of the Super Bowl of stock car racing, Jamie was able to outduel Truex, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others to score the 4th win of his career and first Daytona 500.
Jamie is never short on emotion and this win was no different. McMurray could barely speak in victory lane. Later Jamie explained why he was emotional. His father, whom Jamie has a very close relationship with, had already left the track and did not get to celebrate with his son.
Jamie scored the third victory for the EGR team at the Daytona 500, but the first since Dale Earnhardt Inc. agreed to merge with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. It was the first Daytona win for both Chip Gannassi and Felix Sabates.
Dale Earnhardt 1998—Daytona 500
On 15 February 1998, Mike Joy made perhaps the most famous call in NASCAR history: “Twenty years of trying, twenty years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500!”
I know that is a day I will never forget.
This was an emotional win not just for Earnhardt, but also for every NASCAR fan. Whether you liked Dale or not, I really think everyone was happy for him that day.
The pit crews’ lining up on pit row in a show of respect was one of the most awesome moments in sports history, not just NASCAR’s.
Joy said: “If John Elway can win the super bowl, Dale Earnhardt can win the Daytona 500.”
One thing from that day that still stands out in my mind is that 5 or 6 hours after the conclusion, Dale was still in his fire suit, still celebrating.
Dale showed what kind of man he was when he interrupted his long awaited victory lane interview to congratulate a crew member on the birth of a child.
Finally the 20-year-old, 20-thousand-pound gorilla was finally off of Dale’s back. The career of the Intimidator was finally complete.