PHOENIX, AZ – NOVEMBER 4, 1990: Dale Earnhardt won the Checker 500 at Phoenix in 1990 in the Richard Childress Chevrolet. The only other leader during the race was Rusty Wallace. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)
NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contestants Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth will say and do all the right things in Phoenix International Raceway this week, and again the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They’re both great racers and class acts who drive for championship-caliber teams. And they like and respect each other, which is why they’ve been joking with and texting each other.
But you know what?
Racing, like wrasslin’, needs heroes and it needs villains, guys who are polarizing figures who get everybody talking and arguing. Championship fights need the kind of rancor you got with Petty vs. Allison or Waltrip vs. Yarborough back in the day, not two guys praising each other like it was an infomercial for a juicer.
Which brings us to the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
The year was 1990. Mark Martin, in just his third year with Roush Racing, came into Phoenix with a 44-point lead over Earnhardt with two races to go. Martin was still a young buck at the time and Earnhardt was still the Intimidator, the cocky sumbitch who talked smack to anyone and everyone in his way, but more importantly backed it up.
The day before the race, NASCAR brought Martin and Earnhardt into the tiny PIR media center for the obligatory two-races-to-go-in-the-championship press conference. Right at the start, Earnhardt said something to the effect, of, "Hey, Mark, tell you what we should do: Forget the fans, forget the TV cameras, forget the media, you and I will go to Atlanta, race for 50 laps, come in and do a shot of whiskey, run 50 more laps, do another shot and keep going until one of us drops. Last man standing wins."
Martin turned white as a ghost. He had battled relentlessly to make it back to the then-Winston Cup Series, after having to sell off his own team when a sponsor flaked on him in 1983. After his first failed effort in the big leagues, Martin had gone home to his native Arkansas, won another ASA title and cleaned his act up considerably, losing both his youthful cockiness and some of the bad habits that went with it. He gave up alcohol altogether and became one of the most devoted fitness fanatics in the garage, traits he maintains to this day.
And here was Earnhardt, throwing demon alcohol back in Martin’s face and taunting him with it. It was cruel and unusual punishment for a guy who didn’t deserve it. And it worked, just as Earnhardt knew it would.
Did the display win any good sportsmanship awards? Of course not. But every fan had an opinion on Earnhardt vs. Martin, every fan took sides and the bench racing flowed as freely as the cold beer in seedy bars from Daytona to Darlington.
When the race came, Earnhardt led the final 262 of 312 laps. Martin gambled on tires on the final pit stop and fell from fifth to 10th, crashing on the final lap as Earnhardt won the race and took the points lead.
Two weeks later in Atlanta, the Man in Black won his fourth championship by 26 points over Martin.