Dale Earnhardt was many things to many people — father, son, husband, tenacious driver and champion. His death on Feb. 18, 2001, devastated a legion of family, friends and fans. He was a man larger than his sport, one who brought it to a new level and a widening base of fans. Just what was so magical about the man known as The Intimidator? Behind the wheel of a race car, he was one of the best ever. Why? We take a look at 10 of his greatest career moments to show just how versatile and competitive the seven-time champion could be:
Earnhardt settles score at Bristol
It was four years in the making, but Earnhardt finally pulled off the bump-and-run successfully on Terry Labonte to win at Bristol. In 1995, Earnhardt masterfully sliced through the field multiple times and put himself right behind race leader Labonte on the last lap, getting him loose and into the wall in a fight for the win. But it was too late as Labonte crossed the finish line while skidding out of control. “Ironhead” wouldn’t commit the same mistake in 1999. Although he led late, Earnhardt (pictured at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1999) found himself behind Labonte on the last lap again. Earnhardt didn’t wait, sending Labonte into a spin on the backstretch and driving away for a legendary victory, his last of nine at the venue. "I didn't mean to wreck him. I just wanted to rattle his cage," Earnhardt famously quipped of the winning move.
The Daytona 500 victory was classic, but it was Earnhardt’s success at NASCAR’s most famous track that was the stuff of legends. In his career, The Man in Black had victories in Cup points races (three total), Daytona 500 qualifying races (12 – including a stretch of 10 in a row), the Budweiser Shootout nonpoints event (six), the Nationwide Series (seven) and in International Race of Champions events (six) at the track.
Although Earnhardt (pictured with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was almost a permanent presence inside the top 10 of the final championship standings, it was believed he was on the wane by 2000 — having gone winless three years earlier and finishing eighth and seventh in 1998-99, respectively. But he proved doubters wrong, finishing second overall in 2000 to Bobby Labonte, with two wins and 13 top fives to his record at age 49.
It started as a small shop that built Nationwide Series cars for Earnhardt to drive occasionally, but Dale Earnhardt Inc. flourished through the years and became a Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series champion, as well as a prominent and race-winning Sprint Cup organization.
Before Daytona, there was Indianapolis for Earnhardt (pictured with fellow NASCAR Indy winners Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd). In what was one of the biggest victories of his career, Earnhardt won the second-ever running of the Brickyard 400 at the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway — adding his name among legendary racers such as Foyt, Unser and Andretti to win at the 2.5-mile square-shaped oval.
Earnhardt’s story and successes transcended NASCAR, turning him into a mainstream personality. One example of this came in 1997, when he became the first driver to appear on the cover of a Wheaties box — joining the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Arthur Ashe, both of whom graced the cereal box that year.
Rookie to champ
Even early in his career, it was evident Earnhardt was special. After making sporadic starts from 1975-78, Earnhardt landed a full-time ride with Rod Osterlund in 1979. In that first season, he competed in 27 of 31 races and was named Cup Rookie of the Year. The following season he followed it up by winning the Cup championship — becoming the only driver to accomplish the two feats in back-to-back seasons.
Simply put, Earnhardt’s last career victory was epic. Running 22nd with 10 laps remaining in the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway, he got perfect drafting help from Kenny Wallace and powered past the field in a manner that impressed even Earnhardt — who had nine prior victories at the 2.66-mile venue — as he called it one of his greatest ‘Dega performances ever.
If nothing else, one simple number shows that Earnhardt was one of the two best drivers in NASCAR history — seven. In 1994, Earnhardt won four races and scored 20 top-five finishes en route to his second consecutive championship and record-tying seventh of all time, matching him with “The King” Richard Petty (pictured with Earnhardt) for the most ever.
Daytona 500 win
Feb. 15, 1998, couldn’t have been scripted any better. After 19 years of failed attempts to win NASCAR’s biggest race — including some close calls that ended in disappointment because of fuel or a cut tire late in the race — Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. The sentimental favorite was greeted by every pit crew member after the win, making it one of the most enduring moments in the sport’s history just as it celebrated 50 years in existence.