1990: Earnhardt's dream win
TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS/RACING THROUGH THE DECADES
Tuesday, Oct. 05, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: Third in a series on Charlotte Motor Speedway's autumn Cup Series races, dating to 1960. This year's Bank of America 500 is scheduled Oct. 16, 50 years to the day after the inaugural National 400.
The 9-year-old boy was wide-eyed and tingling with excitement.
Rumbling around the new Charlotte Motor Speedway on June 19, 1960 were 60 race cars, rolling toward the green flag for the inaugural World 600.
Standing in the bed of his father's truck, parked atop a rocky infield knoll that then existed between the first and second turns, the lad from nearby Kannapolis imagined himself out there among the likes of Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Lee Petty.
"I'm going to drive a race car here someday," he promised himself while watching with his parents and siblings. "And I'm going to win!"
Dale Earnhardt realized his great boyhood ambition at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 5, 1980, outrunning savvy, tough veterans Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker to triumph in the National 500.
"No one can know how much I've dreamed and thought about this moment," said a beaming, delighted Dale, son of a famed short track racing champion, Ralph Earnhardt. "It's an even better feeling that I thought it would be.
"I just wish Daddy could be here to share it with us."
The elder Earnhardt, a two-time national titleist in what was then named NASCAR's Sportsman Division, had died of a heart attack on Sept. 26, 1973 while working in his backyard racing shop on Sedan Avenue in Kannapolis.
In the happy victory lane throng 30 years ago, Martha Earnhardt was so overcome with emotion over her son's victory that she hardly could speak.
Earnhardt, the 1979 Cup Series rookie of the year, took the checkered flag 1.83 seconds ahead of runnerup Yarborough, with Baker following closely in third place.
Earnhardt and Yarborough drove Chevrolets, Baker a Buick.
Ricky Rudd took fourth place in a Chevy, the only other driver to complete all 334 laps on the 1.5-mile track. Donnie Allison was fifth in a Chevy, a lap behind.
The pivotal point in the race came on the 280th lap.
Earnhardt, running second to Yarborough at the time and just in front of Baker, wheeled onto pit road for fuel and right side tires. Dale's crew, led by 19-year-old Doug Richert, speeded through a sensational stop. Earnhardt was rolling again in 13.1 seconds.
Five laps later Yarborough pitted for the same service and his stop consumed 17.seconds. On the 286th lap Baker came in and also was timed at 13.1.
The pit road action left Earnhardt with a 3.14 second lead over Cale.
Yarborough and Baker hooked up in a tight aerodynamic draft to try and run down their younger rival, who was 29.
"I saw Cale and Buddy coming, gradually cutting into my advantage," said Earnhardt. "I knew they would. Both of them are among the best of hard chargers.
"But I was determined not to panic. I concentrated on making my car work by running smooth, consistent laps. I didn't want to mess up that great pit stop my crew gave me by going into a turn too hard and getting up in the loose stuff at the top of the track.
"I figured Cale and Buddy didn't have time left to catch me unless I bobbled, and that's how it turned out."
As the local favorite crossed the finish line in his blue and gold, Rod Osterlund-owned No. 2 Chevy, his fans in a chilled crowd estimated at 75,000 threw caps of those colors into the air in excitement.
Recalling that sight, Earnhardt flashed a wide grin beneath his thick mustache. "Incredible!" he said. "I appreciate every one of them."
Earnhardt said he had strong vibes about winning after qualifying fourth behind Baker, Yarborough and Rudd.
"I knew we had a really strong car," he said. "It had a lot of power and was handling really, really well."
Earnhard led 12 times for 143 laps, 95 more than anyone else. He was in front the final 47 laps.
The outcome left Earnhardt with a 115-point lead toward the Cup Series championship over Yarborough with three races to go in the 31-event season. Dale eventually took the first of the seven titles he was destined to win, tying Richard Petty's record, by a slim margin of 29 points over Cale.
Following his '80 triumph, Earnhardt was to win four more Cup Series races at Charlotte, including a sweep of the World 600 and Oakwood homes 500 in 1986. His last win there came in in the 600 of 1993.
Earnhardt also was triumphant in three runnings of The Winston all-star race at Charlotte--in 1987, '90 and '93.
Dale lost his life on Feb. 18, 2001 in a last-lap accident in the Daytona 500. His career had produced 76 victories and all those titles, a record that earned him induction in May as an inaugural member of NASCAR's new Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
Of all the special, thrilling, touching triumphs he'd known, Earnhardt privately ranked that National 500 win in Charlotte's fall race 30 years ago as one of his very, very favorites.
"I love that track, 'cause Daddy and I would ride down there from Kannapolis to take looks as it was being built," he once said. "We saw it take shape.
"I made my first (Cup Series) start there in the 600 of 1975.
"So I always considered Charlotte Motor Speedway my home track.
"When I won there the first time, it became home, sweet home."