Ranking Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s 7 Championship Seasons
Now that Austin Dillon will be the first to drive the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet since the late Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500, we thought it would be fitting to give Dillon something to consider: all the championships Earnhardt won in Cup racing.
Earnhardt and Richard Petty are tied for the most Cup crowns with seven apiece. Jimmie Johnson is right behind them, earning his sixth Cup title this past season.
Earnhardt had an interesting way of winning championships. With the exception of his first in 1980 for team owner Rod Osterlund, the other six championships all came in sets of two (in other words back-to-back years) for team owner Richard Childress.
Had it not been for a bit of misfortune or not enough luck, Earnhardt likely could have won another championship or two, having finished second in 1989, 1995 and 2000, his final season before his death at Daytona. He also finished third in 1988.
Let's reflect on Earnhardt's seven championships, ranking them from seventh to the best of all.
Photos used are not necessarily indicative of the seasons they represent.
7) Fifth Cup Championship in 1991
By 1991, winning championships had kind of become old hat for Earnhardt, who would win his fifth Cup crown in 12 seasons that year.
He did so in a unique way, bowing more to consistency than wins, taking the checkered flag in just four races, tying a career low for him in a championship season.
But it was consistency where Earnhardt excelled. He recorded 21 top-10 finishes in 29 starts, and in so doing easily beat runner-up Ricky Rudd by a hefty 195 points.
Harry Gant also stood out that season, but Earnhardt took away what likely would have been the most coveted accomplishment of Gant's career. It was at North Wilkesboro that Gant was going for a modern-era record fifth straight win in a single season, a record that up to that point had been held by Earnhardt.
Gant was well on his way to taking No. 5 before he lost his brakes late in the race. Earnhardt passed Gant for the win—and kept his own record intact at the same time.
6) Sixth Cup Championship in 1993
Earnhardt would begin what became his third and final back-to-back set of championships in 1993, a year that brought about significant change for him.
First of all, he started the season with a new crew chief, Andy Petree (now an analyst for ESPN telecasts of NASCAR races).
Earnhardt and Petree meshed almost immediately, with the pair joining forces to earn Earnhardt his sixth Cup championship.
Earnhardt won six races in that season, including victories in the grueling Coca-Cola 600, the Pepsi 400 and the big-bucks, The Winston all-star race, en route to defeating Rusty Wallace for the title by 80 points.
5) Second Cup Championship in 1986
After winning his first Cup championship in 1980, it was somewhat surprising that Earnhardt struggled for several more seasons before winning his second crown in 1986.
To prove that, consider how he finished in each season from 1981 through 1985: seventh, 12th, eighth, fourth and eighth.
It wouldn't be surprising if some people wondered if Earnhardt was a one-and-done wonder after his 1980 title.
But after racing for Rod Osterlund for the title in 1980 and the first half of 1981, Richard Childress for the latter half of 1981, Bud Moore in 1982-83 and back to Childress for good in 1984, it took a few more years before Earnhardt would hit his sweet spot, going on to win six championships in the next nine seasons.
In 1986, Earnhardt won five races, presenting Childress with his first owner's championship, and a driver who many thought was a one-and-done champion suddenly was just starting to get warmed up.
4) Seventh and Last Cup Championship in 1994
If there was ever any doubt that Earnhardt was the equal of Richard Petty, that was erased when the former tied the latter in 1994 for most Cup championships at seven apiece.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt would never win another title, even though he'd come close several times between then and his final full season in 2000.
Much like 1986, Earnhardt won the championship by tying his own career low of just four wins in the season.
The championship outcome may have been different had Ernie Irvan not suffered a near-fatal crash at Michigan that August, ending Irvan's season and his bid to win the title over Earnhardt.
With Irvan on the mend, Earnhardt became a man possessed with consistency, eventually winning the championship by a monstrous margin of more than 400 points over Mark Martin.
3) Fourth Cup Championship in 1990
If anyone ever had any doubt that a ticked-off Earnhardt was the most dangerous kind of Earnhardt, the evidence was found in the 1990 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt was leading the race with a huge four-second advantage until the final caution; he ran over a piece of metal debris in the closing laps and watched as Derrike Cope went on to win the 500 (Earnhardt would finish a disappointing fifth in the race).
That end result proved to be an inspiration for Earnhardt and his No. 3 team. Not only did they hang the tire on the wall of the garage at RCR's complex in Welcome, N.C., they used it as incentive for the remainder of the season.
And the ticked-off Earnhardt would go on to win nine races, second-most in a single season for him, defeating Mark Martin by 26 points in the final standings.
However, there's a caveat to that: NASCAR penalized Martin early in the season after a post-race victory inspection at Richmond found an illegal carburetor spacer during teardown. Martin lost 46 points in the standings and was fined $40,000.
Oddly enough, Martin managed to regain the lost points and would lead the standings for 16 weeks before Earnhardt took over with two races remaining.
Martin ultimately lost the crown to Earnhardt by 20 points, a robbery of sorts that folks still talk about today, as it deprived Martin of what likely would have been the first and only Cup championship of his career.
2) First Cup Championship in 1980
Earnhardt won his first Cup championship in a most improbable way. His team owner, Osterlund, didn't have a lot of money or sponsorships. Crew chief Doug Richert was all of 20 years. And Earnhardt was still a raw talent from Kannapolis, N.C., that few would likely envision becoming one of NASCAR's greatest legends over the next 20-plus years.
In his second full-time season in Cup racing in 1980, and despite all the limitations and shortcomings around him and associated with the team, Earnhardt surprised the racing world by winning the Cup crown. He won five races, had 19 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 31 starts.
Much of the credit—and far too often seemingly unnoticed—for Earnhardt's win goes to Richert. For what he lacked in age and experience, Richert and Earnhardt formed a great bond.
Unfortunately, Osterlund's financial situation—he would be forced to sell the championship-winning team only halfway through the 1981 season—never really allowed the Earnhardt-Richert partnership to bloom even more in the following seasons.
Earnhardt remains the only driver in Cup annals to win Rookie of the Year in one season (1979) and follow it up with a championship the following year (1980). He also became one of just eight drivers—the others are David Pearson, Richard Petty, Alan Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth—to win both ROY and the Cup championship in their respective careers.
1) Third Cup Championship in 1987
Without question, Earnhardt's greatest championship season was 1987.
He won a career-high 11 races (including a modern-day record of four in a row), was part of one of the most infamous race finishes in the sport's history (the "pass in the grass" at Charlotte) and he picked up a new nickname that would stick with him the rest of his life: The Intimidator.
Earnhardt was nothing less than intimidating in '87, a virtual terror behind the wheel.
He had a motivation that carried him from the season opener through the season finale, absolutely trouncing runner-up Bill Elliott in the championship battle by a record at the time of 489 points.
If that isn't intimidating, what is?
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