What it was like racing Dale Earnhardt: Recalling ‘The Intimidator’ on the track
NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt who died 20 years ago this week on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the second chapter 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.”
Two of the biggest victories in Dale Jarrett’s NASCAR career were special because of Dale Earnhardt.
“That’s what makes me so proud of the first two Daytona 500s that I won: He finished second,” Jarrett said of outdueling the seven-time champion to win The Great American Race in 1993 (when he made the winning pass on the final lap) and ’96 (when he took first with 23 laps to go). “And fortunately in the very first one, I only had to hold him off for a full lap there. The second one was holding him off for 23 laps because I knew if he got to my bumper, he wasn’t going to care that we were friends. That’s just who he was, and you knew that.
“When you’re passing the very best in the business at a track that he literally dominated in every fashion except for the Daytona 500, that was extremely special. Knowing how badly he wanted to win and still had not won there, that was I considered some of the best driving that I did.”
With 76 victories and seven titles in NASCAR’s premier series, Earnhardt’s talent was unquestioned in the No. 3 Chevrolet, and it also was revealed on many of the Cup Series’ biggest stages. His 1998 Daytona 500 victory came after a 20-year winless wait that included several near-misses (and a major heartbreaker on a cut tire while leading the final lap in 1990). In taking his last checkered flag, Earnhardt drove from 18th to first in the final five laps at Talladega Superspeedway.
But his greatness was realized against the backdrop of “The Intimidator” persona that could be complicated and polarizing. In perhaps his most infamous victory, Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the final lap of the Aug. 28, 1999 race at Bristol Motor Speedway. As skillful as he was in deftly picking through the draft at Daytona and Talladega with precision, Earnhardt is remembered as much for employing a rough-and-tumble style on short tracks.
For every “Pass in the Grass” (while battling Bill Elliott in the 1987 Winston), there also were cantankerous dustups with seemingly countless rivals -- notably Geoff Bodine, whose rows with Earnhardt inspired a “Days of Thunder” plotline about a meeting called by NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. to end their feud.
As part of a weeklong series recalling the legacy of Earnhardt 20 years after his death, NBC Sports talked to NASCAR analysts Jeff Burton, Jarrett and Kyle Petty, all of whom raced against the first-class NASCAR Hall of Famer, and also culled observations from several interviews over the years to describe the competitive fire that made Earnhardt the superstar who could play the bad guy but still stay on everyone’s good side:
Kyle Petty: Earnhardt was an incredibly talented driver, but he did not have the natural talent that Tim Richmond had. What Earnhardt had was a nod to Red Byron bolting himself into a race car when he would connect his leg to the clutch. What Earnhardt had connected the generations and the eras before him and was something you couldn’t see, couldn’t touch, you couldn’t feel, and you couldn’t describe. It’s just there. You can call it desire. You can call it hard-headedness, but there’s something you can’t see in some people and he had that by the bucketfuls.
Dale Jarrett: This isn’t a knock against Richard Childress’ teams or anyone else’s, but Dale Earnhardt won races and championships with seldom having the best car. And that proved to me in so many ways of just how good he was. When you look at superstars that have won multiple titles, especially when you get into talking about seven in NASCAR or any other sport, the supporting group that they had, they had an edge in that they had everything around them that made them better. Dale had good people. He had good cars. But seldom did he have the best car. But he made it the best car, because he was the best driver.
Petty: I think people respected his driving ability and what he could do with a car. You stood back and watched what he could do with a car, you thought, gosh, man. You knew he had a 10th-place car, and he’d just run fourth with. If you’re out there racing with the guy, you know a lot of times what they’ve got. You know it’s not the best car. It’s not the best car. He was doing a lot with it. Whether it was (Rod) Oesterlund. Whether it was (J.D.) Stacy. Whether it was (Richard) Childress or Bud (Moore). He did stuff with Bud’s Ford that was pretty special at the time. So you respected that ability. I don’t think there was a lot of respect sometimes for the way he used that ability because you knew he was better than that.
Jim Hunter, late NASCAR vice president of communications, in 2006: My favorite Earnhardt story is when we changed the size of the restrictor plate at Talladega the day before an event. Earnhardt was like Brer Rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch!’ He says, “I hate these restrictor plates, they ought to do away with them,” and then he’d go out and win the race. We’d shrink the size of the restrictor plate hole, and Earnhardt would say, “I told them they shouldn’t do this,” and then he usually would win the race.
Ray Evernham (during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast), recalling the 1997 Daytona 500 that Jeff Gordon won after tangling with Earnhardt, who returned to the track after a late crash: The race is getting ready to go green, here comes this (No. 3) driving down pit road — roll cage laid back, roof busted, deck lid taped on. And (Earnhardt) pulls alongside, revs his motor and flips me off. He had that big goofy smile with that open-faced helmet. He could smile as wide as the opening. He wasn’t mad. He was just letting me know, “Hey, I ain’t done yet.” I always treated him with respect. I always was in awe of what he accomplished. We talked about a lot of things. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I wasn’t intimidated by him. I used to give it back to him, and I think he liked that. He’d grab me by the neck, but I’d get behind him and do the same thing. As we raced together, he respected my knowledge and ability as much as I respected his ability as a driver.
Certain people in your life drive you to be better. You care enough about these people or you respect them so much that you want to impress them and be on their level. Dale Earnhardt was the best in the business, and I wanted to show him that I could be the best in the business. I wanted to be worthy of being able to compete with him. It was probably one of the greatest things in my career to have that friendship with him. We yelled at one another a couple of times, but (he respected) the fact I yelled back at him. “Don’t you respect my seven championships?” “I do respect your seven championships, but don’t run into my damn car!”
The day he died I knew racing had changed for me. I just said to people it’s never going to be the same. That was my first day really as a team owner. We lost Dale Earnhardt in that race, and it never was the same. I think that day some of my fire went out … Even though I loved my time with (drivers) Bill Elliott and Kasey (Kahne), the fire was just never the same after that. It got turned down a notch.
Petty: There were moments in a lot of races where you would be racing Earnhardt or he’s coming up in the mirror. You would just see him this subtle ‘I got this’ while making a move, and he would make it look so fluid and so smooth that you just witnessed something that somebody else would have been in the wall (or) in a wreck, but the guy sitting in the third row never realized there was danger in the moment. That’s Superman. It’s a different perspective from being in the car and watching somebody do magic and sitting in the audience and watching somebody do magic.
Kirk Shelmerdine (on the Dale Junior Download in March 2019), Earnhardt’s crew chief from 1984-92: It was always us against the big teams. (The) controversy was all great. It was part of the persona. The more stuff he got into, that was better. We supported him. If he backed into somebody in the parking lot with the van, it was their damn fault for parking there. We had each other on anything. It was the game plan. We just had the attitude the more aggressive he was and more afraid they were of him, the better. We tried to back that all we could.
Rick Hendrick in 2011: He and Bodine were going at it hammer and nail (in the 1988 Coca-Cola 600), and Geoff went in the corner and rubbed him. The next corner, Dale planted Geoff firewall deep. We walked over, and Geoff was standing by my car. It was destroyed. I said, “You know, Geoff, if you walk down the street and see a snake, you step on his head. Don’t pick him up and shake him and lay him back down. He’ll bite you.” If you’re going to mess with Earnhardt, you better wreck him good because if you don’t, we’re going to be cutting you out of the car. That cost Richard and I a lot of money. That meeting that France had in Daytona saved me a lot of money. I was losing a lot of cars.
Petty: Sometimes, you were just disappointed in Earnhardt. It’s kind of like your third-grade teacher writing on your report card, “Kyle has so much talent and so much ability, but he talks all the time and he never pays attention.” She respects what you could do but she’s disappointed in what you did. When he spun Terry at Bristol, that’s a disappointment, man. There were times when things happened, and I looked at him and thought, ‘Man you’re so much better than that.’ When he wrecked Terry at Bristol, that was bad for me. That was just, you can get out and say you were rattling a cage, but you planted the guy, man. I think of the moments like that because they didn’t need to happen.
Don Hawk, Dale Earnhardt Inc. president 1993-2001: Over the last 10 years, how many guys shoot their mouth off, point their fingers, try to reach at another guy over a crew member? Dale didn’t do that. Dale would grab you by the epaulet of your uniform, pull you right up to his ear. And this happened to him and Rusty Wallace at Bristol (in the Aug. 26, 1995 race), the night where Rusty threw the water bottle. And Dale walked over, grabs Rusty by the epaulet of his uniform, pulls Rusty next to his head and said, “You know what, we can fight here and make a scene. Or you can come to the farm on Monday, and we’ll either fight it out or talk it out like two men. But see me at my property or shut up.”
And guess what happened? I opened the electric gate on Monday morning for Rusty Wallace to come in our property. They got in Dale’s truck. I didn’t see them for at least three and a half hours. They came back in, they ate lunch, they disappeared again. They came in, and Dale said, “You’re not going to believe this, I actually have Miller beer for you.” And they drank a beer in the shop over a picnic table, Tony Eury Sr. was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Earnhardt is having a beer with Rusty Wallace.” None of us know what happened in the pickup truck or beyond the gate, but I’m sure they yelled at each other a little bit, talked at each other a little bit, but they came out of there with a respect.
Darrell Waltrip (on the Dale Junior Download in November 2020): Probably the only time I confronted (Earnhardt) about something he did on track was the 1995 All-Star Race. People don’t realize, that (crash) was the beginning of the end for me. I broke ribs underneath my shoulder blade. I had to have relief drivers. I had a lot of good people working for me at the time, but because I couldn’t drive, the car couldn’t run up front like it had been, so they all left. In that All-Star Race, we had a great car, and I know if I get in front of Jeff Gordon, I can win the 10-lap shootout (to end the race) … Out of the corner of eye, I see sparks flying, and it’s Dale. I’m going to sail into Turn 3 and take the lead, and I’m out of here. I hit that wall so hard, I thought I was dead. I was a mess.
(Next) Wednesday, I find Dale and said, “What the hell, man. What were you thinking?” He said, “What were you thinking? I was thinking I was going to win that race. I was thinking don’t you ever go on the outside of me. Hopefully you learned a lesson.” And walked away. But that’s the way he was. He’d call every year at Christmas Eve. One year, he didn’t call me. We get to Daytona, I go up to him. “Did you call me Christmas Eve?” He said, “I don’t have to call you every year.” And just walked away. There were two Dales.
Jeff Gordon in 2010: Dale didn’t say, “Mess with me, I’ll mess with you.” He just messed with you to do it and then laughed about it later and say, “Hate that happened!” and put his arm around you. He was so good about it. He wrecked me once at Phoenix when I was a rookie and racing the hell out of him on the outside for 10th place. I was so mad and then I looked at it on TV and I thought, “Man, I don’t know. Did he wreck me? I think I came down on him a little bit.” He was so good at knowing how to make it so close, you weren’t sure if he wrecked you or not. But he was just one of those guys who could get away with it for some reason, and it didn’t seem to cost him the championship.
Mark Martin on his podcast in 2018: He treated me with great respect until one day in the mid-90s he wakes up and he just thinks, “Boy, I’ll just mess with Mark, see how much he will take.” He started pushing my buttons just for the fun of it. I would go out to practice and try to run by myself and he would come out. He would wait for me. He would come out right beside me and he would get on the outside of me. That’s when the cars were just starting to get aero loose with a car on the outside.
He would mess with me and mess with me and mess with me. Well, I finally got tired of it at Michigan. He got on my outside and I switched it on him. I got ahead of him and then let him get on the inside of me and when we did, it sucked him around. He spun me around, and he wrecked me. I had not wrecked myself or him all this time he had been messing with me and it pissed me off because it wrecked my car. So I was mad. That was in practice.
So, the next weekend on Friday, first thing we rolled out at New Hampshire, I go out and here he is. He does the same thing, and I put the wheel on him in practice. He comes in after practice and he looks at his PR guy, and he said, “I think Mark has had enough.” That’s all. It was just playing. I wasn’t going to cry to the media, I wasn’t going to complain, I was going to be a man. I wasn’t going to be a baby. Some of the other people, Dale didn’t like the way they reacted, he didn’t respect it and he made their life miserable.
Dave Marcis (to NBC Sports in 2020): We were at Martinsville, and Dale was hammering at me and hammering at me, and I got ticked off about it and spun him out. He wouldn’t talk to me for two months. He was mad. But you know what, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I had to stand up for myself, and I can’t let people run over me, because if I did, then I was going to have trouble all the time.
Finally one day, he walked up to me and grabbed me around the neck, had a big old grin on his face, and said, “You know that deal at Martinsville?” And I said, ‘Yes sir.’ And he said, “I had that coming. My daddy always told me if you have any problem with anybody, don’t carry it down the road. I guess you had a problem, and you didn’t carry it down the road.”
Jeff Burton: I never really had an issue with him. He and I wrecked at Bristol, maybe my rookie year. Early in my career. And we drove down in the corner, and he was lapping me, and he just acted like I wasn’t there and turned into the corner like I wasn’t there. And he spun and wrecked. And I’m like, “Oh shit!” I thought I knew what happened, but I’m like, “Hell, I’m Jeff Burton, he’s Dale Earnhardt. It’s my fault.” And the next week, he walked up to me, and he said, ‘Hey. I want to let you know my mom told me that wreck was my fault.” I’m like, “OK!”
At Talladega one time, I pushed him and pushed him and helped him and got myself in a situation where I needed some help, and he didn’t help me. I saw him at the airport after the race and said, “What the hell, man? I helped you the whole frickin’ day and a chance for you to help me, you didn’t help me.” He looked at me and said, “Am I there racing for you? Or am I there racing for me?” Well, I guess you got a point. But that was him. He wasn’t keeping track of, “Wow, that Burton. He’s a good guy. He’s helping me.” He didn’t give a damn. He just knew what he had to do when it was time for him to do it. He didn’t care about you.
Dale Jarrett: Myself and most others were on the wrong end of his bumper a number of times. But he had this way about it that was incredible. Usually when you went to talk to him, you’d be so mad, and it almost seemed like before the end of your conversation, that at least 50 percent of what happened was your fault.
He just had this way of making you seem like he really hadn’t done anything wrong. He never really apologized for anything, not with any incident I had with him. There were times that you could get him back, but the scoreboard never evened up. He’s just a hard-nosed racer. A lot of people you didn’t know what you were going to get week to week and track to track, but with Dale Earnhardt, you knew what was coming.
Dustin Long contributed to this story