Championship athletes invariably rise up to perform their best on the biggest stages, and the late Dale Earnhardt certainly did just that.
A first-year inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, Earnhardt won 76 Sprint Cup races and had 281 top-five and 428 top-10 finishes, along with a record-tying seven championships.
Here are 10 of his best race victories:
10. BRISTOL, 1979 – Driving the No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Rod Osterlund, Earnhardt won his first Sprint Cup race in only his 16th career start. Earnhardt led 164 laps to win the Southeastern 500 at what was then known as Bristol International Raceway. Finishing behind him were Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty and Benny Parsons. Collectively, that top five earned 19 Cup championships.
9. SONOMA, 1995 – Earnhardt would be the first to tell you that the only lap that pays the money is the last one. Fittingly, his lone NASCAR road-course victory would come at Infineon Raceway, when he passed Mark Martin with two laps to go to take his only lead of the race. Martin led 66 of 72 laps, but when the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt won the Save Mart Supermarkets 300.
8. DARLINGTON, 1989 – Until Daytona International Speedway was built in 1959, Darlington Raceway was the biggest stop on the NASCAR schedule. And to this day, the Southern 500 remains one of the sport’s majors. In 1989, Earnhardt dominated the Heinz Southern 500, leading 153 of 367 laps. And the victory had special poignancy, because the Thursday before the race, Earnhardt’s late father Ralph was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in Darlington.
7. PHOENIX, 1990 – Earnhardt came into the penultimate race of the 1990 season trailing Martin by 46 points, but he left with the points lead en route to his fourth of seven championships. And he did it in classic Earnhardt style, trash talking all weekend and completely psyching out Martin. Earnhardt led the final 262 of 312 laps to capture the Checker 500 and take a 6-point lead over Martin, a lead Earnhardt would not relinquish. Martin, meanwhile, crashed after taking the checkered flag and finished 10th as the grandstands erupted in thunderous applause for Earnhardt.
6. CHARLOTTE, 1993 – You don’t piss off Dale Earnhardt. Anyone who ever raced against "The Intimidator" knew as much. In the 1993 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt took his game to a new level. He lost a lap early when he was penalized for speeding on pit road. After getting his lap back, Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing crew was penalized for having too many men over the wall, sending him to the back of the field. On Lap 327 of 400, Earnhardt was penalized a third time, this one for rough driving when he dumped Greg Sacks. Still, despite the three penalties, two of which cost him a lap, Earnhardt came back to lead the most laps and win over a 21-year-old rookie named Jeff Gordon.
5. BRISTOL, 1999 – Talk about hot August nights. With five laps to go in the Goody’s Headache Powder 500, Earnhardt led and Terry Labonte, who had just gotten four fresh tires, was fifth. In just two laps, Labonte made it all the way to the front. But shortly after Labonte made the pass for the lead, Earnhardt dumped him in Turn 2 on the penultimate lap. Afterwards, Earnhardt famously said, "I didn’t mean to really turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage, though." Afterwards, Labonte was furious and Earnhardt had his ninth and final victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.
4. SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE, 1987 – NASCAR’s annual all-star tilt at Charlotte Motor Speedway featured high drama, supercharged emotions and one of NASCAR most iconic moments, even if it was incorrectly named. Earnhardt, perennial fan favorite Bill Elliott and Geoffrey Bodine tangled during the 1987 Winston, a race that was rough, even by Earnhardt’s standards. Earnhardt nearly lost it in the CMS tri-oval, going through the turf in what came to be known as "the pass in the grass," even though it wasn’t a pass at all. Earnhardt forced Elliott into the wall and went on to win the race, much to the chagrin of the Elliott fans. After the race, the Earnhardt and Elliott crews scuffled on pit road. This was the first and most famous of Earnhardt’s three all-star victories.
3. BRICKYARD, 1995 – It was huge news when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was allowed to race on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994. Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400, but Earnhardt was determined to win one, too. It didn’t take long at all, as Earnhardt was victorious in just the second running of the famous race. The start of the ’95 Brickyard 400 was delayed some four hours by rain and when it was finally run, Gordon, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace were the dominant cars early. Earnhardt made his final pit stop for gas and tires on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race, running second to Wallace at the time. But Wallace got blocked in on pit road and lost the lead to Earnhardt, who went on to victory.
2. DAYTONA, 1998 – Nobody won more races at Daytona International Speedway than Earnhardt, who captured a record 34 races at the fabled 2.5-mile superspeedway. But in the Daytona 500, he seemed cursed, unable to win despite often dominating. Earnhardt lost the 500 about every way imaginable, including running out of gas, losing an engine, and in 1990, cutting a tire while leading going into Turn 3 on the last lap. Finally, it all came good in 1998, Earnhardt’s 20th Daytona 500. Earnhardt led 107 of 200 laps to score the victory and end a 59-race winless streak. Most amazing, though, was what happened at the end: As he drove down pit road towards Victory Lane, virtually everyone walked out on pit road to congratulate Earnhardt in an unprecedented show of respect.
1. TALLADEGA, 2000 – Arguably the best victory of Earnhardt’s career would prove to be his last. With four laps to go in the Winston 500 Earnhardt was buried way back in 18th place, having just bounced off of Rich Bickle’s car and seemingly trapped in a sea of race cars on all four sides of him, surrounding the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Earnhardt charged forward, parting the field like Moses parting the Red Sea, and with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek behind him, Earnhardt raced hard to the front. As the cars came to the white flag, RCR’s Mike Skinner had the lead on the bottom lane, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind him. But up top, it was the elder Earnhardt, with Wallace pushing him for everything he was worth and Nemechek holding sway behind them. On the final lap, Skinner’s challenge faded and the top three pulled away. Earnhardt crossed the line the winner, claiming the $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus money in addition to his race earnings. Maybe, just maybe, he really could see the air.