NASCAR Families, Part 3:  The Earnhardts

Just the mention of the name means a lot to NASCAR fans.  It means victories, championships, legend among those meanings.  To many fans, not one name brings out more emotion than Earnhardt.  They are a symbol of success.  Even through great tragedy, they remain a fixture in NASCAR.  The Earnhardts are the focus of Part 3 of this series.

When you look at NASCAR, two names are first thought of:  Petty and Earnhardt.  There are a couple of striking similarities.  The first generation was among the first driver's to make a name for himself and the second generation would become a legend.    Both names remain the greatest in the sport's history.

Ralph Earnhardt got started in NASCAR in 1956.  That same year, he won the Sportsman's Series championship.  He would eventually make it into the top series, then named the Grand National Series.  His highest finish was a 17th in the standings in 1961.  He would have 16 top ten finishes before the end of his career in 1964.  Ralph would be inducted into The International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997 and was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers.  Ralph's life would be cut short on September 26, 1973, when he died of a heart attack.  He was 45.

 Ralph actually did not want his son Dale to follow in his footsteps.  But he did.  Dale Earnhardt made his debut in the Winston Cup Series in the 1974 World 600 at Charlotte.  He would finally get into the series full time in 1979.  He was part of a rookie class that included Harry Gant and Terry Labonte.  Dale won one race (Bristol), 11 top-fives and 17 top-tens on his way to Rookie of the Year honors.  He did not have a sophomore slump in 1980.  Far from it.  He won his first Winston Cup that year.

After briefly racing for Richard Childress in 1981, he went back to his race team full time in 1983.  The two would make probably the most successful owner/driver combinations in NASCAR history.  A new persona also appeared with Dale.  After the famous "Pass in the Grass" with Bill Elliott at The Winston in 1987, he got his famous nickname "The Intimidator".  Dale's aggressive style of driving earned him wins and fans, but also the anger from many fellow drivers.  The success cannot be argued.  With Childress, he won six more Winston Cups ('86, '87, '90, '91, '93, 94).  For a long time, one big prize eluded him:  The Daytona 500.  Everything from a blown tire on the last lap, to last lap passes kept him from winning.  Finally, his year arrived in 1998.  Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500.  The victory sparked one of the most memorable post race celebrations in NASCAR history.

As the late '90's dawned, the next generation arrived.  Dale's two sons, Kerry and Dale Jr., both started an interest in NASCAR.  Kerry won the championship at his local track in 1994.  Kerry has raced in all the three top NASCAR series' as well as the ARCA ranks.  While Kerry has not had a great amount of success, he is still involved with the racing in the family.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. has blossomed into the sport's biggest star.  He won the Busch Series Championship in 1998 and 1999 racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company started by his father.  He made his Winston Cup Series debut in 1999, and full time in 2000.  His first win came at the DirecTV 500 at Texas.  With Dale's continuing popularity and Dale Jr's rising status, things were going very well for the family.

Then, came February 18, 2001.

It was the Daytona 500.  As the race unfolded, it certainly looked like the Earnhardt's would factor in the result of the race.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running second behind DEI teammate Michael Waltrip and Dale Sr. was third.  As the final lap unfolded, it looked like Dale Sr. was holding back a pack of cars so that his friend and his son would race for the win, both driving cars he owned.  Then as he approached the final turn, Dale made accidental contact with another car, turned across the track in front of Ken Schrader, and hit the wall head on.  As Michael won the race and Dale Jr. finished second, Dale's car along with Schrader skidded across the track and came to rest in the grass at turn 4.  Dale was cut from his car and rushed to the hospital.  But it was too late.  Dale Earnhardt died from severe head injuries in the crash.  The tragedy plunged the sport into deep grief.  It was obviously even worse for the family.

At the center was Dale Earnhardt Jr.  The 2001 season became a season long tribute to his father's memory and legacy.  The questions about how he would be able to handle everything after Dale's death was numerous.  Dale Jr. understood that and handled it about as well as you could imagine.  On July 7th, Dale Jr. was still in the center of attention when the sport arrived back at Daytona for the first time since the tragedy.  That night, at the Pepsi 400, Dale Jr. lifted the emotions of NASCAR.  In the final laps after a late caution, he was sixth.  A rather difficult spot to try and win.  But what he did in those last laps reminded many of what his father did on the track.  Dale Jr shot past the leading cars and put himself in front.  With just about everyone in the grandstands yelling wildly, Dale Jr took the checkered flag for an amazing and emotional victory.  It was just the lift NASCAR needed. 

 On February 15th, 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again linked himself in history to his famous father.  In his fifth try, he won the Daytona 500.  It just so happened to be the exact same date that Dale Earnhardt won his Daytona 500 in 1998.

In their triumphs, they have survived great tragedy.  Dale Jr. remains the most popular figure in the sport.  Dale Earnhardt Inc., operated by Dale's widow Teresa, remains in the Nextel Cup (Though Dale Jr recently announced he will be driving for Rick Hendrick Racing in 2008).  The next generation is on his way.  Kerry's son, Jeffrey, is racing in the Busch East Series.  The family is also reaching for new ventures within racing.  In late 2006, Dale Jr and Kerry, along with Dale Earnhardt's oldest daughter Kelly Earnhardt-Elledge announced plans for a motorsports complex which would be built near Mobile, Alabama.

By:  CrimsonCowboy

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