The Day the Engines Died: Remembering Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

Jen PrestonSenior Analyst IFebruary 3, 2009

I realize this is early, but on the 50th anniversary of another legend's death, I thought it'd be appropriate.

He was the Man in Black, the king of restrictor-plate racing, The Intimidator.

Three weeks from tomorrow, on a quiet February Wednesday, it'll be the eighth anniversary of his death.

Eight years ago, we lost a legend. We lost Dale Earnhardt.

His story began in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where Ralph Dale Earnhardt was born to parents Ralph and Martha Earnhardt. A persistent Dale wanted no part in his father banning him from racing. Sadly, the elder Earnhardt passed away before his son had reached his full potential—a tragedy that would sadly parallel itself 28 years later.

Dale Earnhardt struggled from 1975 to 1978 to gain a full-time ride, but finally did his official rookie year in 1979, when he drove for Rob Osterland.

The man who would one day be known as The Intimidator would win the Winston Cup Championship for the team the following year, one of many to come.

Leaving the team near the end of 1981 to drive for Richard Childress Racing would prove to be the wisest choice. There, a partnership, and eventual friendship, between the two would prove to be a nearly unstoppable.

Together, they won 68 races, captured 262 top fives and finished in the top 10 404 times. They also combined for Earnhardt's six other championships—1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, and his last in 1994.

Earnhardt also claimed 31 restrictor-plate wins, including six in the Busch Clash and 12 in the Daytona qualifying races.

Despite all that success, the win that eluded him most was the prestigious Daytona 500.

After twenty years, he finally did it.

Dale Earnhardt won "The Great American Race" in 1998, congratulated by every pit crew member on pit road, who lined up to shake the Man in Black's hand.

His last win came in the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega. Earnhardt would never visit Victory Lane again.

On Feb. 18, 2001, Earnhardt, in his infamous black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, was running behind his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc. entry, Michael Waltrip during the Daytona 500, the race that he'd spent most of his career trying to conquer.

With one lap remaining, Sterling Marlin tried to pass Earnhardt, but ended up hitting him, sending the No. 3 and Kenny Schrader into the wall. 

Later that evening, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the dreaded announcement.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Helton said through tears. "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

Earnhardt Nation mourned the loss of their hero, but bright points throughout the season lightened hearts around the NASCAR world.

A week after Earnhardt's death, DEI driver Steve Park won the DuraLube 400 at Rockingham. Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., won the next race in Daytona that July.

Richard Childress, who had contemplated leaving the sport after his friend's death, put second year Busch driver Kevin Harvick in the renumbered No. 29—now white—Goodwrench Chevrolet.

Three weeks after the Intimidator's tragic death, Harvick beat out the eventual champion, Jeff Gordon, at Atlanta Motor Speedway to win his first race by a margin of .006 seconds.

The same margin of victory Earnhardt had over Bobby Labonte at the same track three years previous.

It was a victory Gordon credited to "a higher power that wanted to see this outcome."

"With about five laps to go," Childress said, "I just looked up in the sky and said, 'We need your help, old buddy.' I just kept praying for Dale to help us out. He gave us the help we needed. I can see that mustache smile right now."

The happy newcomer was, possibly for the last time in his career, left speechless.

"I don't even know how to put it into words, to tell the honest truth," Harvick said. "It took an extra cool-down lap just to get through the emotional part of it. I don't know how you could have scripted it any better."

"I was sitting at home watching this race last year and for it to wind up almost the same way is scary, if you think about it," he added. "And then coming into Victory Lane, with all those guys putting their arms out to me—all those guys who have been through one of the most difficult situations and supported me through it ... all I can say is this one was for Dale."

Despite his death, Dale Earnhardt's legacy lives on. His sons Kerry and Dale Jr. continue to race, and his daughter Kelley is involved in her brother's career.

The Dale Earnhardt Foundation continues to support some of the causes nearest to Dale's heart, from children and education, to preserving wildlife and the environment.

On this, the eighth anniversary of his death, be sure to take time during your race weekend to remember the man that changed this sport forever.

Came that fateful moment

Down there on the beach

From where we sit, looked as if

Victory was in your reach

No one knew... as the seagulls flew

You had lost your life...

There's an emptiness inside

Never got to say goodbye

So Mr. Earndhardt

We'd like to thank you... for... the ride.

-”The Ride” by Christopher Michael Johnson

Thanks to Racing Reference, CNN, Answers.com and Christopher Michael Johnson for the information, stats and lyrics used in this piece. For more from Christopher, be sure to check out http://christophermichaeljohnson.com/home.html.


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