When we think about Dale Earnhardt these days, we think of many things: His black No. 3 car. His nicknames. His seven Cup championships. His son Dale Jr. And, unavoidably, his death in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001 that shocked the sport and helped bring about widespread safety initiatives.
What those memories miss, however, is how the track felt, week after week, with Earnhardt as its overwhelming presence. In our flashback this week, we travel back to the 1990 NASCAR all-star race.
It was 25 years ago when Earnhardt was trying to win The Winston, as it was then called, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. By that point in his career, Earnhardt had established himself as the circuit’s best driver, as well as its most fearsome.
But many of the fans who had once hated him for his hard-charging style had come to love the driver from Kannapolis with the bushy mustache, as well as the No. 3 car he drove. In 1990, and for much of the next decade, Earnhardt had the rare advantage of both extreme popularity and extreme dominance. He would win his fourth points title in 1990, and then win the championship three of the next four years after that, too.
As Rusty Wallace marveled in May 1990 about Earnhardt: “At one time, he was the circuit’s most hated guy. He was NASCAR’s Darth Vader. Now, he’s the most loved.”
It’s rare for any sports figure to have more than one nickname that stuck. But 25 years ago, Earnhardt already had three that were getting inscribed on T-shirts: “The Intimidator,” “The Dominator” and “The Man in Black.”
Earnhardt was certainly the man to beat in The Winston, the all-star race NASCAR had begun in 1985 and that continues Saturday night when it runs once more at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Earnhardt had won the all-star race in a controversial finish in 1987, and he was trying to become the race’s first two-time winner.
“Like I’ve always said, pay the money and we’ll run,” Earnhardt said shortly before the race. He was explaining that it didn’t matter to him what the all-star format was – then and now, NASCAR has tweaked the race constantly. He just wanted to make sure the check for winning didn’t bounce.
Earnhardt thoroughly controlled that year’s Winston, driving a repurposed 1987 Monte Carlo he had won several other races with already. He won the pole in qualifying and he led all 70 laps of the all-star race, all in a car that was in its fourth year of racing. He ended up winning $325,000 for a weekend’s work.
“People say you can’t dominate,” he said. “But if you work hard, you can.”
That domination came partly because of an old trick Earnhardt had learned growing up and driving on the local dirt tracks. On a restart in the final laps, Earnhardt knew that rival Bill Elliott was driving one of the few cars that might be able to catch him.
Sitting in front on a restart, just behind the pace car, Earnhardt slowed down just before the green flag. Elliott saw this and had to slow down, too. Just when Elliott did that, Earnhardt hit the gas, timing the restart perfectly and leaping out to a huge lead. “He just kinda jumped me on that deal,” Elliott said.
Earnhardt was asked later if he was trying to sucker Elliott.
“Naw, I didn’t mean to sucker him,” he said with a sly smile. “It just got time to go, and I went.”
I love that line, don’t you? It could have been an unofficial motto of Earnhardt’s life.
It just got time to go, and he went.