The racing Earnhardts
Dale Earnhardt had won Winston Cup Championships in 1980, 1986 and 1987 but never NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500. When he found himself leading the 1990 500 on the final lap, it looked as if he finally would.
But as he rocketed down the back straight and into the last high-banked turn, his black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy suddenly slowed. Second-running Derrike Cope swept past for the win, while Earnhardt limped home to fifth. He had run over a piece of metal debris and cut a tire.
When the Goodwrench car unexpectedly faltered on that final lap, the air went out of the rowdy gaggle of Chevy dealers and employees sharing Buick's suite as fast as it had from Earnhardt's cut tire, while the Buick bunch pumped their fists and cheered.
Few drivers in NASCAR history generated such mixed emotions as Earnhardt. Virtually worshiped by legions of fans, Earnhardt was hated by nearly everyone else for his aggressive driving tactics. He was known for bumping, even crashing, anyone, including GM competitors, out of his way to win. That reputation earned him the nickname "The Intimidator." Other nicknames: "The Man in Black" and "Darth Vader." Thousands of nonfans wore "Anyone but Earnhardt" T-shirts.
Yet almost no one knew that off the track Earnhardt was gentle, kind and generous and a loving family man, cut from the same tough cloth as his champion racer father, Ralph. "The most important things in my life are God, my family and that black No. 3 Goodwrench car, in that order," Dale said in 1998.
Both were born in Kannapolis, N.C. -- the father, in 1928; the son (Ralph Dale), in 1951. The elder Earnhardt began racing in 1949, won NASCAR's Sportsman Championship in 1956 and more than 350 (mostly short-track), races -- often in Chevys -- in his 23-year career.
He was also an innovator who tuned "bite" into his cars and used tire stagger (larger tires on the outside) before anyone else. Son Dale recalled racing against him once early in his own career when Ralph came up behind him, physically pushed him past the competitor he was battling, then pulled away to win the race.
Ralph's legend has him dying of a heart attack in 1973 while working under his car, but it really happened in his kitchen. He was just 45. "I would give it all back if I could have my Dad back," Dale said afterward. Both were named among NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers" in 1998.
Dale's racing career began, against his parents' wishes, when he dropped out of school at 16. He made his first top-rung Winston Cup start in 1975 and landed a full-time ride in 1979. He won one race that year, earned four poles (as fastest qualifier), scored 17 top-10s, finished seventh in points and was Rookie of the Year despite missing four races with a broken collarbone. The following year, he won six times to become the first and only Winston Cup driver to follow a Rookie of the Year season back-to-back with a championship.
He went on to win 76 Winston Cup races and seven championships -- all in Chevys -- tying "The King" Richard Petty's championship record total. In 1998, he finally won the Daytona 500, on his 19th attempt, and every crew member of every team lined the pit road to shake his hand in respect. He was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the same race three years later while running interference in third for teammates Michael Waltrip and son Dale Jr.
Unlike his famous father, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. began racing go-karts as a preteen with his father's full support.
"I suppose growing up with the Earnhardt name, I could have been a spoiled brat, but I wasn't," Dale Jr. said in 1998. "You start at Dale Earnhardt Inc. by sweeping floors and shoveling out the horse barn. I was no exception."
Third-generation Chevy-driver "Junior" went on to win two straight NASCAR (second-tier) Busch Series championships in 1998 and 1999 before moving up to full-time Winston Cup competition in 2000. He scored his first win (of two) that year in just his 12th start and finished a strong second at the 2001 Daytona 500, unaware that his father had not survived the crash behind him. Since then, he has scored 16 more top-tier NASCAR (now Sprint Cup) wins -- though only one since 2005 -- and has been NASCAR's Most Popular Driver eight consecutive years since 2003.