Dale Earnhardt: A NASCAR Champion

By Darryl Moran - originally posted to Flickr as Dale Earnhardt: NASCAR Photography By Darryl Moran, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10263950
Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1998 (Darryl Moran/NASCAR via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 2001, seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a final-lap crash during the Daytona 500.

Here are some things you may not have known about Earnhardt and that fateful day.

Dale Earnhardt was born in 1951 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He was the third of four children of Ralph and Martha Earnhardt. Ralph Earnhardt was a champion short-track stock-car racer who didn’t want his son involved in auto racing.

Despite this, Dale Earnhardt dropped out of high school to pursue a career in stock-car racing.

Earnhardt married his first wife when he was 17 years old. The marriage produced his first son, Kerry, before ending in divorce in 1970. He married again in 1971, a union that produced two children, daughter Kelley, and son Dale Jr. This marriage also ended in divorce in 1974.

In 1975, Dale Earnhardt made his Winston Cup debut at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the World 600, the longest event of the season. He finished 22nd. He would compete in eight more races through 1978.

In 1979, Earnhardt ran his first full season, winning at Bristol and finishing seventh in the season points race and earning Rookie of the Year honors. He followed that by becoming the first, and so far only, driver to follow a Rookie of the Year season with a series championship. Nine other drivers have won both honors, but no one else has won them back-to-back.

The early 1980s were rough on Earnhardt. In 1981, he finished seventh in points in a winless season after switching teams midway through the season. The following year he won a race, but failed to finish in 15 other events, finishing a career-worst 12th place in points. In 1983, he won twice, but finished only eighth in points.

In 1984, he returned to Richard Childress Racing to replace Ricky Rudd in the No. 3 car. He finished fourth in the first season with Childress and eighth in his second. In 1986, Earnhardt won five races and won the first of back-to-back Winston Cup championships.

In 1990, Earnhardt was leading the season-opening Daytona 500 with a less than a lap to go when he cut a tire, and finished fifth behind surprise winner Derrike Cope. Earnhardt would rebound to win the his fourth season championship.

He also won championships in 1991, 1993, and 1994, tying Richard Petty for most series titles in a career with seven. The only feat he had yet to accomplish was winning NASCAR’s showcase event, the Daytona 500. He had finished second four times, including 1996 when he started from pole position.

In 1998, Earnhardt won his Daytona 500 qualifying race for the ninth straight year, to earn the fourth starting position. On Lap 138 of the 200-lap main event, Earnhardt took the lead with a push from teammate Mike Skinner and held on to win the crown jewel of stock-car racing in his 20th attempt.

Earnhardt would win five more races in the next two seasons to reach 76 victories for his career.

On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt was in third place on the final lap of the Daytona 500 behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., both in cars owned by Earnhardt Sr. In the final turn, he made contact with another driver and veered onto the flat apron on the infield side of the track. Out of control, the car came back onto the track where it was hit by another car before hitting the wall at around 160 miles per hour.

Ken Schrader, who was driving the second car to hit Earnhardt, went to check on him following the wreck. He began frantically calling for medical assistance. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had finished second behind Michael Waltrip, rushed to the scene of the incident. Earnhardt Sr. was removed from his car and taken to a nearby hospital. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful and his was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m., local time.

The official cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma to the head and other injuries. He also suffered a basilar skull fracture upon hitting the wall. A later investigation showed that the force of the crash was similar to that of a drop from almost 62 feet.

The deaths of Dale Earnhardt and three other drivers during the previous year, inspired NASCAR to make changes to its safety regulations. Many drivers changed from five-point safety harnesses to six-point harnesses. NASCAR later required the use of a head and neck restraint system to reduce the risk of basilar skull fractures. They also required new energy-absorbing barriers to be installed at all top-series tracks. The organization also began designing a new car which included many safety improvements.

Since the death of Dale Earnhardt, there have been no fatalities in the top three levels of NASCAR competition.

Our question: Who replaced Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the Winston Cup Series in 2001?

Today is Independence Day in Gambia.  It’s unofficially Drink Wine Day, National Battery Day and Thumb Appreciation Day. It’s the birthday of car maker Enzo Ferrari, artist Yoko Ono and actor John Travolta.

On this date in 2001, the top song in the U.S. was “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast; the No. 1 movie was “Hannibal,” while the novel “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” by Terry McMillan topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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