Dale Earnhardt, written off as washed up by many observers of Winston Cup racing,
proved in 2000 that he might have an eighth series championship in him yet.
Driving for car owner Richard Childress in an unprecedented 17th season, Earnhardt
chased champion Bobby Labonte right down to the wire last season, only faltering
in the last 10 races of the season. Earnhardt ended up second in the championship
for the third time in his 26-year career by piling up two wins, 13 top-5 and 24 top-10
finishes. The latter number equaled Labonte's, but the champion beat Earnhardt on
consistency, nailing six more top-5 finishes.
The Kannapolis, N.C., native ran in the top-4 of the Winston Cup point standings
in the second half of the season in pursuit of a record eighth championship. He finished
every race in 2000 and returns with his crew, including chief mechanic Kevin Hamlin,
He scored a thrilling last-lap win by inches over Labonte in the spring race at Atlanta,
then charged from 18th place over the last five laps to win the fall Winston 500
at Talladega, in the process collecting the Winston "No Bull Five" $1 million bonus.
Earnhardt proved his mettle with a string of eight straight top-10 finishes in the
middle of the season. At season's end he had won nearly $5 million ($4,918,886),
launching his motorsports leading career total over $41 million.
While he still struggled in qualifying, Earnhardt returned to his competitive fire
in race trim, leading 17 races a total of 38 times. After revitalizing his career
in 1999, Earnhardt went one step beyond it in 2000. He proved the fire still burns
for the man who has diversified his business interests beyond even the ownership
of three Winston Cup teams for son Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Park and Michael Waltrip
as well as a part-time operation for oldest son Kerry Earnhardt.
"The Intimidator's" seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series titles offer all the proof needed
to those who question his place in history. His aggressive style has helped define
a generation of drivers, those who run hard on Sunday then shake hands and exchange
congratulations when all is said and done.
Earnhardt was the first driver in the history of the sport to win the rookie-of-the-year
award and the series title at the Winston Cup level. He diversified one step further
in 2001 when he competed in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, driving a factory-prepared Chevrolet
Corvette with Earnhardt Jr.
He was the first three-time winner of the Winston Select (1987, 1990 and 1993) and
won three IROC championships (1990, 1995 and 2000).
Earnhardt credited Rod Osterlund with giving him his biggest break, in 1978. He won
the championship for Osterlund, his first, in 1980 before moving on to drive for
Childress, for whom he has won six titles.
The 2001 season looked to be another stellar year for the legend, but he was tragically
killed in the last lap of the season opener--the Daytona 500. For all who loved him,
he died in a manner befitting a champion. His team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. took the
top two spots in the race, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second. Earnhardt
himself was holding back the pack and seemed to be in for a third-place finish, before
the tragedy struck.