“The Intimidator” backed down to no one.
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina—a cotton mill town outside Charlotte—April 29, 1951. He was the third of Ralph Earnhardt and Martha Coleman’s five children. Ralph dropped out of school in sixth grade and become a “lint head”—the local nickname for cotton mill workers. He quit the mills at a young age to pursue auto racing and became one of the best short-track drivers in North Carolina, winning the NASCAR Sportsman Championship in 1956. “Dale” dropped out of school in ninth grade so he could race cars. He began his career as a dirt-road racer and, by 1972, had two children and was in his second marriage. In 1973, Dale lost his father to a heart attack. The following year, he picked up a used car and began competing on what would become the Busch circuit.
Dale Earnhardt made his NASCAR debut on the Winston Cup [now Sprint Cup] circuit in the 1975 World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, finishing 22nd and pocketing $ 2,425. Unable to maintain a sponsor, he did not return to the NASCAR circuit until 1979, when he won his first race; the Southeastern 500 at Bristol. Only the fourth rookie in NASCAR history to win a race, he won over $250,000—more than any first-year driver ever–and was named 1979 Rookie of the Year. The following season, he won five races and took the first of seven career points championships to become the only driver in NASCAR history to win rookie of the year and the Winston Cup title in back-to-back years. Earnhardt won eleven times in 1987 and captured the checkered flag nine times in 1990, but his passion was to win at Daytona, where he had finished second four times, including 1995 and 1996.
The Daytona 500 [Daily Dose, 3/8/16] is the crown jewel of stock car racing—NASCAR’s Super Bowl. The event, which kicks off the NASCAR season, carries the sport’s largest purse. Dale Earnhardt came into the 1998 Daytona 500 having gone winless in his last 59 NASCAR starts. In February 1998, The Intimidator finally won the Daytona 500 after 20 years of trying. It was the marquee win of his career. After narrowly missing what would have been his record eighth Winston Cup title in 2000, Earnhardt started the following season at Daytona.
On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt—driving his familiar No. 3 car–died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 after making small contact with Sterling Martin and hitting the outside wall head-on. Mr. Earnhardt died instantly of a basilar skull fracture, sending shockwaves of sorrow throughout the stock car racing community. He was 49 years old. For the remainder of the season, racing fans, television and radio broadcasters would fall silent during lap three of every Winston Cup race in Earnhardt’s honor. Dale Earnhardt was voted NASCARs’ Most Popular Driver in 2001.
The Intimidator employed an aggressive driving style that led him to seven Cup championships, tying him with Richard Petty [Daily Dose, 11/18/15] for most in history. He won 76 Cup races, including the 1998 Daytona 500, and led over 25,000 laps during his 27-year career. Mr. Earnhardt competed in 676 Cup races, with 428 top ten’s and 22 poles. His best year was 1987, when he won eleven races and finished in the top five in 21 of 29 starts. In 1996, “Senior” became the third driver in NASCAR history to start 500 consecutive Cup events. For most of his career, Earnhardt drove the No. 3 car—a black machine, sponsored by GM Goodwrench, accented with bold red and silver trim. Senior was the first rookie to win over $ 200,000, was the first driver to top $30 million in career earnings, and finished his career having earned over $ 42 million in prize money. He had four children, the third of whom followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father to become a NASCAR driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award a record 13 consecutive times. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was elected to the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002, the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, and, in 1998, was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drives.