There was never any doubt in Dale Earnhardt's mind about what he wanted to be in life. As a young boy watching his father Ralph race -- and win -- in Stock car events throughout the Southeast, Dale developed a love for the sport that would ultimately fuel one of the most successful careers in the history of motorsports.
In his late teens, Dale began racing Hobby-class cars in and around his native Kannapolis, NC, working full-time by day, welding and mounting tires, and either racing or working on his cars by night. He financed his own effort, oftentimes having to borrow money to buy parts and pieces to run on the weekends, hoping to win enough to pay back the bank on Monday.
In 1973, Ralph Earnhardt died of heart failure while working on his race car. Crushed by the loss, Dale eventually learned to cope by becoming more determined than ever to be successful as a driver. He continued to compete on the Sportsman circuit, racing at speedways near his home such as Hickory, Concord, and Metrolina Fairgrounds.
Dale made his Winston Cup debut in 1975, finishing 22nd while driving Ed Negre's Dodge in the World 600 at Charlotte in a deal put together by CMS President Richard Howard. Over the next three years, he made a total of eight more starts, the last of which was the 1978 Dixie 500 at Atlanta, when he drove a second car for Rod Osterlund. Earnhardt finished fourth in the race, one spot behind Osterlund's regular driver, Dave Marcis.
Marcis left after the 1978 season to start his own team, leaving Osterlund with a list of candidates to fill the seat in his Chevrolet. He decided to take a chance on the young driver, and offered Dale his first full-time Winston Cup ride for the 1979 season. Earnhardt considers the offer the biggest break of his career.
In his first full season of competition, Dale scored his initial Winston Cup win at Bristol in just his 16th career start. Eight races later, he notched his first career pole at Riverside. By the end of the season, he had driven to 11 Top 5 finishes and beat Harry Gant, Terry Labonte and Joe Millikan for the rookie title in one of the most competitive rookie battles ever.
In 1980, with a young, yet solid team, good equipment and the determination to prove he belonged at racing's highest level, Earnhardt beat tough veteran Cale Yarborough for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series title to become the only driver ever to win the rookie crown and the series' championship in consecutive seasons.
Midway through the 1981 season, Osterlund sold his team to Jim Stacy. Earnhardt, disenchanted with the performance of the new team, left after only four races, deciding to finish the season driving for Richard Childress. By the end of the year, Childress realized that his cars were not performing at a level that justified a talent like Earnhardt's, so he urged Dale to accept an opportunity to drive for the well-established team of Bud Moore and big-dollar sponsor, Wrangler. Earnhardt accepted the ride in the #15 Fords, in which he competed for two seasons, winning three races and finishing 12th, then 8th in the points.
Meanwhile, Childress, with driver Ricky Rudd, was building his team into a championship contender. In the off-season between 1983 and 1984, Earnhardt made the decision to rejoin Childress. Driver and owner immediately began a program to achieve the level of performance both believed would take them to a NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Neither could have envisioned the success they would achieve together.
The duo captured their first championship two years later, in 1986, beginning a reign that would bring them six titles over the next nine seasons, accumulating records that attest to the talent and ability of one of the greatest drivers ever to have raced the short tracks and superspeedways of NASCAR. The highlights include:
Seven NASCAR Winston Cup championships ('80, '86, '87, '90, '91, '93, '94)
The only Winston driver to win Rookie of the Year and the Championship in successive years (1979, 1980).
Career winnings in excess of $40 million.
Five-time NMPA Driver of the Year ('80, '86, '87, '90, '94)
Only three-time winner of "The Winston" ('87, '90, '93)
Only six-time Busch Clash winner ('80, '86, '88, '91, '93, '95)
Four-time IROC champion ('90, '95, '99, '00)
Earnhardt has won nearly every major event and title available to NASCAR Winston Cup drivers, including the Daytona 500.
In February 1998 after 20 attempts, Dale Earnhardt captured the only major victory that had eluded him throughout his career, the Daytona 500. The win was the 71st of his career and came in his 575th Winston Cup start, placing him sixth on the all-time wins list. Earnhardt added to his legacy in 1998 when NASCAR honored him and his father Ralph as two of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR history.
Two years later, Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr. followed in his father's tire tracks, joining his dad on the Winston Cup circuit. The father experienced a career renaissance — nearly winning a record eighth Winston Cup championship — finishing second to Bobby Labonte in 2000.
In February 2001, Dale Earnhardts, elder and younger, opened Daytona Speedweeks together as two members of a team in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, an annual sportscar race. The Earnhardts finished second in their class and fourth overall, proving to any doubters that Dale and son were more than just stock-car drivers.
The death of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 moved America like no other athlete's death ever had. Earnhardt was an original, a one-of-a-kind guy who captured the hearts of American stock car racing fans and the general public as well. With a twinkle in his eye and a devilish grin on his face, Earnhardt shoved and pushed his way to the front. With unparalleled determination, he willed his race cars to victory. He was loved not so much for the number of checkered flags and championships he won but for the spectacular style with which he won them.