Dale Earnhardt: Essence of the Intimidator, father and friend

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy, and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the first in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion, who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.

Many have tried to define Dale Earnhardt, explain the essence of the man behind the reflective sunglasses and thick mustache, whose mill town upbringing resonated with the everyday man even as Earnhardt did remarkable things with the black No. 3 Chevrolet.

There were those who viewed Earnhardt as NASCAR’s Elvis for the fervor his fans showed. Some looked at him as the sport’s Babe Ruth for being among the best at what he did. Others compared him to James Dean, whose time ended well before it should have.

Twenty years after his death in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt remains a relevant figure in NASCAR that time has enhanced, not forgotten. Many continue to try to explain who Earnhardt was to those who didn’t witness his greatness on the track and the person off it.

The fact is, he was simply Dale.

What does that mean?

Let these people explain:

Humpy Wheeler (former general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006 interview): Dale Earnhardt was the last working-man driver that we had. The guy running the backhoe and the shrimp boat captain and the carpenter, people out there working with their hands, they loved Earnhardt.

Ken Squier (during the 2001 broadcast of Earnhardt’s memorial service): I’ve always thought part of the magic of Dale Earnhardt was that he was the common man who did uncommon things. He was everybody who ever had a dream. He was the one with the focus and concentration and strength to live out his dream and take it to the greatest heights. … He was that John Wayne character that wasn’t a fictitious character on the screen. This was for real.

Kyle Petty: He came in like Darrell (Waltrip) did. “I’m here, you gotta make room.” That’s kind of the way Darrell came in. He didn’t tiptoe in. Earnhardt didn’t tiptoe in. Did that ruffle feathers? I don’t ever remember my dad’s feathers being ruffled. You know what I mean? I just don’t. I just don’t ever remember, especially it from Dale. It was just like, “OK, there’s another guy that we got to race against that is good that we got to beat.”

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt’s last NASCAR Cup victory came in 2000 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Dale Jarrett: The superstars don’t take no for an answer in their quest to be the best, and Dale was exactly that. He wasn’t letting anything get in his way. He did things his way.

Jeff Gordon (in 2006 interview): A Babe Ruth figure, that’s the way I look at him. He’s probably the best driver I’ve ever raced against, and certainly the way he left the sport is something that’s only going to leave his persona at an even higher level. He still had things to accomplish, he still had things he wanted to do. The fact that we didn’t get to see that happen is only going to continue to make him larger than life.

Felix Sabates (former car owner in a 2006 interview): In a way, Dale dying did a lot for the sport. Jesus dying did a lot for Christianity. No, no, no, I don’t compare him to Jesus. I compare him to Elvis. You know, I know Burt Reynolds, that probably is a good comparison. Because Burt has the personality Dale had.

Kurt Busch: Senior did everything. He did it right. The way he went about himself with the Intimidator look and driving style, it was always there. He did it with the officials. He did it with the manufacturers. Then he had that swagger and that smirk to know what he was capable of at all times. He just nailed it everywhere he went.

I was a kid growing up in Vegas watching races. He was who we rooted for. My dad loved his driving style. I tried to emulate it and that’s what got me in trouble early in my career. Who is this 22-year-old punk acting like he’s going to move people out of the way and then just lip off afterwards and walk away? Yeah, you could do it, but you could only do it if you were Dale Sr.

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Billy Scott (a friend of Earnhardt in a 2000 interview with the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C.): Really back when Dale was young and we really didn’t have money to go out and eat steak, we’d eat a lot of tomato sandwiches and stuff like that back in them days. Dale, to me, has never forgotten where he’s come from. He’s proved that by coming to see us. He told us he would never forget us and never would forget where he had come from. That’s been true.

Bill Malcolm (He told the News & Record in 2010 that he often stopped at a gas station for coffee on his way to work in the mid-1980s. Some days, Malcolm arrived before it opened at 6 a.m. Earnhardt was there early now and then, buying a Sundrop): At first, I really didn’t realize who he was. He would pull in. I would pull in. He would talk about his family, and I would talk about our family. We didn’t talk much about racing. We would talk a while, and I would go to work and he would go out on the farm. He was so proud of it. I can remember him telling me, “One more payment, Bill, and I’ll have this farm paid off.”

Atlanta Journal 500
Dale Earnhardt celebrates his fourth Cup Championship with wife Teresa Earnhardt and daughter Taylor Earnhardt after the Atlanta Journal 500 on Nov. 18, 1990. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

Dale Beaver (Motor Racing Outreach chaplain from 1999-2005): MRO did this thing called the Father’s Day Olympics (each year at the track). It was always a big deal at the track. Miss Jackie (Pegram), I don’t know how she did it. Miss Jackie was able to get to come to that and just do the goofiest things with (daughter) Taylor when she was little. … She got him to sit down and put like a tablecloth around his neck and Taylor put whip cream or shaving cream all over his face and stuck Cap’n Crunch cereal or whatever it was on. I forget exactly what the object of the game was, but then he gets up from the chair, we all had a big laugh and Taylor is having a ball because now her dad is chasing Miss Jackie, trying to get whipped cream or shaving cream on her.

Kyle Petty: Only him and Neil Bonnett were best buds. We were friends. His dad raced. My dad raced. We raced. Started that same year although I was 10 or 12 years younger or whatever, but we talked just like all drivers talked. We found ourselves in positions and places a lot. And then Junior came along and Adam came along. Man, we found ourselves talking about what they had done at Myrtle Beach or what this had happened because they raced together some times. You just talked about junk and how Junior was doing and how Adam was doing.

Dale Beaver (on the first time he met Earnhardt, asking Earnhardt to sign a permission slip so Taylor could go on a MRO camping trip in 1999): He’s about to qualify. He’s sitting at a table (in the back of the team’s hauler) peeling an orange. … He said, “Come here, I want to ask you about that trip you’re going to take Taylor on.” … We talked for a few minutes about just being dads and how it’s very important that Taylor was going to be somewhere she was going to be secure, who all was going to be there. … I remember looking at him saying, “Dale, I’ve got two boys and I don’t even want them walking across the street without them holding my hand.” He’s like, “You’re exactly right.” He got to talking to me that just the fact “that you blink … and they grow up and they’re not kids anymore. You better keep them safe and take care of them for as long as you can.”

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Earnhardt/Childress NASCAR 1998
Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress at Daytona in 1998. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Richard Childress: Not only did he impress me on the race track, he impressed me with so many things that he’d done for people away from the track that people would never ever know about. All of those things. That’s where he had a heart of gold.

Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001): What you saw – the intimidating, swaggering Earnhardt – that was 100 percent real. It wasn’t an act. He literally drove the same way. His walk and talk and swagger was always consistent. He didn’t give you an inch off the track or an inch on the track. I’m talking about competitively. Because there’s a side of him that was so cool, and I’ve seen personal things that he’s done to help people or churches or stuff like that, and you’d go, “Wow. That’s the same guy?” Yeah, that’s the same guy. But he would do it almost like the Bible says: Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When Dale did a good deed for somebody, he tried to do it as quietly as possible.

Dave Marcis (2020 interview with NBC Sports): We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro. I finally got the nerve to go up to him and told him, “Dale, you need to sponsor my car at Wilkesboro with Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.” He asked how much did I want. I told him $2,500. He said that wasn’t enough. He never said another word the rest of the weekend to me about it. … About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.

Kyle Petty: We’re out in Riverside (in 1980) riding go-karts with all the R.J. Reynolds people one night. … He got up somehow on top of my go-kart and we kind of got hung together. When it was over with and we got everything off, my pants were ripped from just below my knee and all the way down. I had a pair of cowboy boots and whatever was sharp was under that thing slit my cowboy boots from the top to the bottom like a razor. If it got in my leg, I’d still be in the hospital.

We looked at it and kind of laughed about it and I’m like, “You just ruined my cowboy boots. I just bought these cowboy boots.” … We laughed about it and we joked about it and he never said anything. He just walked over the next week to the truck and said, “I got these for you,” and that was the end of the conversation. So, somewhere it bothered him that he had messed up those cowboy boots. That was the kind of guy he was. You thought he didn’t have a conscience, but he had a conscience.

Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001):  This man came to the gate of DEI, back in the old days before Garage Mahal, it was just a chain-link fence gate. But it was remote controlled by the office with two-way glass. We could see out, they couldn’t see in. At the gate, this man gets out and is standing at the gate looking, and Earnhardt says, “Huh. Open the gate.” I said, “Dale, I don’t know who it is.” He said, “I know who it is, I can’t believe it. Let me feel it out first.” …

The man proceeds to explain to him, “Dale, I know the last time you saw me was over 15 years ago, and I was a drunk. I want you to know I’ve been a dozen years sober, I’m now a preacher at this small church, and I just wanted you to know that I was such a bad example to you, what happened in my life. It just mattered to me to come tell you that.” Dale asked about what kind of church. Dale knew I was religious and asked what I thought. Told him I thought it was legitimate. I’d driven by the church, and it was old and rough.

The guy said, “Yeah, I took it over, and we park right there in the grass.” Dale said, “What do you mean you park in the grass?” He said, “We can’t afford a parking lot, but that’s OK.” We get done talking, Dale takes the guy for a ride around the property, brings him back in my office, and says, “Talk to Hawk for a couple of minutes, I’ll be back.”

He comes back in with a brown bag full of cash and said, “Turn that grass into a parking lot and don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.”

Nate Ryan contributed to this story

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.